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Sean Penn interviewed El Chapo. Which one of them got played?

Alfredo Estrella/AFP

Chapo Guzman, the Mexican drug lord and one of the most famous criminals in the world, was recaptured on Friday after months on the run. But not before he'd done something he'd never done before: given an interview to the press.

The intrepid journalist who managed to track down El Chapo and get him to agree to an on-the-record conversation? Oscar-winning actor, occasional activist, and reportorial dilettante Sean Penn, of course.

The resulting interview — published in Rolling Stone — isn't very good. The writing is laughable, and any insight it might provide into Guzman's character is tainted by the fact that Guzman was apparently given final approval of the article's text: a violation of traditional journalistic ethics. Neither the US nor Mexican government appears to know exactly what to make of it. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said that the "so-called interview" raised "a lot of interesting questions"; Mexican officials are simultaneously bragging that the Penn interview helped lead them to Guzman and calling Penn and his associates in for questioning.

Reading Penn's article, it's impossible not to see him as a useful idiot — a painfully naive man who gained access to Guzman because he's famous, and because Guzman knew Penn would portray him in a flattering light. But is Penn a criminal guilty of aiding and abetting a fugitive? Or was he — wittingly or unwittingly — the man who led law enforcement authorities to Guzman once again?

We might never know exactly how law enforcement officials tracked down Guzman in a Sinaloa safe house in January. Penn was almost certainly not involved in that part, but the Mexican government's remarks about the Penn/Chapo saga offer up a version of Guzman's fall that's so perfectly Hollywood it's incredibly tempting to believe: Chapo Guzman, already the most famous man in Mexico, was undone because he wanted to be a star.

Who is El Chapo?

Joaquín Guzmán Loera is the longtime head of Mexico's Sinaloa cartel, one of the country's largest drug trafficking operations. But no one refers to him as Joaquín — instead, they use his nickname, "El Chapo," which is Spanish for "shorty."

Guzmán is by far the most famous criminal in Mexico, and he has long been a symbol of the power that criminal organizations have achieved there. Politicians from Mexico's two leading political parties have often accused one another of being beholden to the interests of El Chapo and the Sinaloa cartel as a way of implying that they cannot be trusted to restore or preserve Mexican security.

Guzmán's own history proves those accusations aren't off-base: After 12 years on the run, he was captured in 2014, then escaped again in July 2015 by getting accomplices to dig a mile-long tunnel running from his cell to a safe house. He was just recaptured by the Mexican government on Friday, January 8.

chapo recapture

Mexican officials congratulate each other over the recapture of Chapo Guzman on January 8, 2016. (Omar Torres/AFP)

By now he's as much of a folk hero as anything. He's the star of countless narcocorridos, or folk songs about outlaws and cartel leaders. He's known as a bit of a bon vivant who hasn't let being on the run prevent him from enjoying himself (or being generous to his fellow Mexicans).

One urban legend holds that whenever El Chapo wanted to go to a restaurant for dinner, he'd send in his men first to confiscate everyone's weapons and cellphones; after eating, his fellow patrons would get their belongings back, and El Chapo would pick up everyone's tab. Maybe it's true and maybe it's not, but the point is that he's seen as more than just a notorious criminal.

One thing he hadn't done, however, was give an interview on the record. Ever. Until now.

It makes complete sense that Guzmán would allow Sean Penn to interview him

Sean Penn is an Oscar-winning actor who thinks he's a global statesman.

It's not uncommon for Hollywood stars to spend their spare time doing humanitarian charity work, as Penn has done in Haiti since the 2010 earthquake. (His organization has attracted some praise for being relatively effective — which, in a country where not only celebrity-headed relief groups but even the Red Cross have seriously mismanaged their funds, would be an impressive accomplishment.) It's also not uncommon for them to express politically liberal opinions.

But for the most part, unlike other celebrities who aspire to statesmanship, Penn doesn't come off as a do-gooder the way that, say, Bono does. He's attracted less fame for his Haiti charity work than he has for his writing — not just op-eds but reported articles as well. He's an angry critic of what he sees as American hegemony in the world — and, therefore, a self-styled crusader intent on finding out whether the people America calls evil are really as bad as advertised.

sean penn smug mfer

Sean Penn at a benefit for his Haiti charity on January 9, 2016. (Jonathan Leibson/Getty)

That's what led Penn to befriend Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez in the years before Chavez's death in 2013 — and to say that anyone who called Chavez a dictator should be jailed. It's what leads him, in the Rolling Stone article, to discuss his work in Haiti as if he's the only person in a room full of clueless bureaucrats who actually understands Haitian reality and culture. And it's the reason he gives for wanting to interview Guzmán.

In Penn's telling, the US portrays El Chapo as some sort of drug-peddling supervillain, when in fact the drug war is driven more by American demand than Mexican supply. As far as Penn is concerned, since he can't trust the US to be fully honest about its complicity in the drug war, he has to be open-minded about everything — and find out for himself whether El Chapo actually has a soul.

You can see that open-mindedness as valuable. Or you can see it as an invitation for Penn to be manipulated by political figures with their own agendas — by agreeing to sit for "interviews" they know they'll be able to control and having him present them as journalism.

When Penn published an article profiling Chavez and Cuban leader Raúl Castro for the Nation in 2008, professional journalists panned the piece as a work of "stenography": Instead of challenging these world leaders, Penn was just taking down what they said like a secretary. Anyone who has already suffered through Penn's Rolling Stone article about El Chapo might want to read the following takedown of his 2008 interviews with Chavez and Castro, from the New Yorker's George Packer:

Many pages of Castro's monologue are transcribed and transmitted to North American readers without interruption (except when "Raúl interrupts himself"), proving that Penn understands the first principle of the good interview: make the subject feel comfortable enough to open up. Good interviewers also know how to analyze the material they work so hard to elicit, and Penn treats his readers to gems such as "Inside, I’m wondering, Have I got a big story to break here? Or is this of little relevance?"

Mexican soap actress Kate del Castillo is El Chapo's contact with Penn, and with Hollywood

Penn isn't as cagey as you'd expect about how he got in touch with El Chapo's associates to set up a meeting, which took place in October 2015. And while his story sounds implausible, it sounds implausible in a typical movie-business way.

The bridge between El Chapo and the entertainment business is a Mexican soap actress named Kate del Castillo. Del Castillo caused a media furor in 2012 by posting on Twitter that she trusted El Chapo's Sinaloa cartel more than the Mexican government, and exhorting El Chapo to "traffic in goodness." According to Penn, that message led to her initial contact with El Chapo's lawyers — and to El Chapo's own decision, after his recapture in 2014, to have del Castillo make an authorized biopic.

Kate del Castillo

Usually, Kate del Castillo's activism centers on PETA — not on, say, acting as a cover for drug kingpins. (Todd Williamson/Getty)

According to Penn's account, del Castillo entered into a financial partnership with two of Penn's associates (identified in the Rolling Stone article as only "Espinoza" and "El Alto") to make the film; Penn met del Castillo through Espinoza last fall, when he had the idea to interview the then-re-escaped Guzmán.

Del Castillo has ambitions in the US as well as Mexico: She's doing guest spots on Jane the Virgin and other US TV shows, and she's about to start filming a Spanish-language series commissioned by Netflix (in which, ironically, she'll play the wife of the Mexican president).

Meanwhile, according to Variety, she has in fact been "aggressively pursuing biopic rights to El Chapo's life story with the intent of producing the movie herself" (though the real-life identities of "Espinoza" and "El Alto" remain mysterious).

The Mexican newspaper El Universal, reporting on a Mexican government investigation, has clarified that such a project would indeed have the blessing of El Chapo's associates (whom Mexican authorities have photographed with del Castillo on multiple occasions). According to El Universal, del Castillo's job was to reach out to actors and crew for the film — she had already contacted an "unidentified Argentine director" to write a screenplay.

On at least one occasion, according to El Universal, El Chapo's associates did try to use del Castillo's Hollywood ties to help their boss: They asked to her to try to suppress the release of a Mexican film about Guzmán's escape. But either del Castillo didn't agree or her efforts didn't work (the film is coming out Friday, January 15).

The El Universal article doesn't say whether del Castillo was actually assisting El Chapo and the cartel, or whether the Mexican government was simply tracking her as a way to get to Guzman — or because the government is frustrated at Guzman's continued ability to escape officials while getting good press on his own terms. Either way, as del Castillo led Penn into Mexico, both of them were being watched.

The interview: a violation of journalistic ethics, and a crime against the English language

If you know only one thing about the Rolling Stone article itself, it should be this: The writing is terrible. Penn apparently fancies himself some combination of Bob Woodward and Hunter S. Thompson; he'll tell you he farted when El Chapo shook his hand, but he calls it "expel[ling] a minor traveler's flatulence." It is the sort of self-serious dreck that no one but a celebrity could publish in a major American magazine, and that always inspires self-righteous grumbling from bona fide professional journalists.

But frankly, few journalists needed to read any of Penn's words to get angry about the piece, because the article begins with an admission that it violates one of the key tenets of journalism.

A "disclosure" at the beginning of Penn's piece reads, in part: "An understanding was brokered with the subject that this piece would be submitted for the subject’s approval before publication. The subject did not ask for any changes." And while some have pointed out that the disclaimer doesn't explicitly name Guzmán, he is indisputably the subject of the piece. Rolling Stone, to all appearances, is admitting that El Chapo or someone close to him officially approved Penn's article before the magazine went to press.

For non-journalists, this might not seem much different from celebrities only agreeing to scripted on-the-record interviews, or to political reporters writing complimentary pieces about politicians as "beat sweeteners" for future scoops. But to journalists, this is a bright line. You don't allow sources to review their quotes after an interview, and you certainly don't allow them to read the rest of the piece. Ever.

Jann Wenner

Jann Wenner is apparently not giving a lecture on ethics in journalism. (Charles Eshelman/Getty)

The fact that Rolling Stone says the subject "did not ask for any changes" doesn't exactly make up for it, either. For one thing, Guzmán's people had control over the "interview" from the start. Penn writes that once it became clear that it wouldn't be safe for him to meet El Chapo in person a second time, he agreed to submit questions in writing that Guzmán would answer by video. But the video itself omitted some questions and "softened" the phrasing of many. The result isn't much more hard-hitting than the average Barbara Walters joint.

Interestingly, the last time a Rolling Stone piece made national news, it was also because it was accused of being too trusting toward a subject. In late 2014, the magazine published an article about rape at the University of Virginia that started with the horrific story of "Jackie," a woman who was allegedly gang-raped at a frat party. But shortly after the story's publication, questions arose about gaps in Jackie's story. A Columbia Journalism Review investigation later revealed multiple serious failures to vet the story during the editorial process, and Rolling Stone ended up retracting it in April.

The interview taps into a broader attitude among many in Mexico that the Sinaloa cartel is relatively "civilized"

The other reason that journalists, in particular, are upset about Penn's article is summed up by this tweet from Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron:

But in reality, Baron's tweet and Penn's interview are two sides of the same coin. Because when people talk about "the cartels," they aren't talking about a monolith. Different cartels have different strategies and reputations — and one key reason El Chapo is so revered in parts of Mexico is that he and the Sinaloa cartel are seen as less violent than newer cartels like the Gulf and the Zetas.

Penn parrots this attitude in his Rolling Stone article: "Unlike many of his counterparts who engage in gratuitous kidnapping and murder, El Chapo is a businessman first, and only resorts to violence when he deems it advantageous to himself or his business interests." It sounds more than a little romanticized — the myth of the gentleman thief. But it's a sentiment you can see in more objective media as well, like this 2012 LA Times article on a fight between the Sinaloa cartel and the Zetas:

The Sinaloa cartel, for all its murderous ways, maintained something of a social base among many locals. The cartel was seen as a gang of ruthless businessmen, reluctant to "heat the plaza," or stir things up and attract scrutiny.

The newly arrived Zetas, on the other hand, act more as an occupying force, quicker to attack, or kill, uninvolved civilians. With no connections to the local population, they're free to act like crude hatchet men who ignore any rules.

The difference between the Sinaloa cartel and other groups is real. But it's not a difference of moral character — it's a difference of strategy. The Zetas, a new cartel, didn't have the established capital and political ties that the Sinaloa cartel did — the only tool the Zetas had at their disposal was making people fear them.

The Sinaloa cartel, by contrast, has put its efforts for years into establishing political influence behind the scenes. You can see the result in the Rolling Stone article, when Penn (in a car driven by Guzmán's son) arrives at a military checkpoint: The soldiers recognize the younger Guzmán and wave the car through.

Did Penn break the law in secretly interviewing a fugitive?

The Rolling Stone article strongly implies that Penn met with one of the most wanted criminals in the world and didn't say anything about it to the authorities.

This might be a deliberately misleading impression. Penn never says outright that he wasn't sharing information with Mexico or the US. (Vox has asked Rolling Stone to comment on this possibility; Rolling Stone hasn't replied yet.)

But assuming that Penn didn't say anything to anyone about meeting El Chapo, did he commit a crime? Probably not.

Simply knowing something about a criminal and not delivering that information to the authorities generally isn't a crime (though, as is always the case in matters of the law, there are exceptions). And while harboring a fugitive is a crime, US law defines "harboring" a little more strictly than just knowing something; as Mediaite points out, you have to actually help the fugitive evade recapture.

There's no indication yet that the US is planning to prosecute Penn for interviewing El Chapo. But the Mexican government very well might. Officials confirmed Sunday that the government wants to question Penn and del Castillo, and there are some anonymous reports that the two are being investigated for aiding and abetting a terrorist (as the Mexican government has labeled Guzmán).

If charged, though, Penn has a very strong defense: He was acting as a journalist. (A terrible journalist, but a journalist nonetheless.) The right of journalists to protect their sources isn't just a matter of First Amendment law — it's an enshrined principle of international law as well. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (to which both Mexico and the US belong) says, "Every social communicator has the right to keep his/her source of information, notes, personal and professional archives confidential."

That's not a guarantee that Mexico — or the US — won't try to prosecute Penn. But if they do, the same journalists who are currently attacking his methods might come to his defense.

Did the interview lead to El Chapo's recapture?

When Penn's Rolling Stone article was released on Saturday, January 9, it initially looked like yet another embarrassment for the Mexican government. They'd finally succeeded in catching El Chapo again after several months on the run, only for the world to learn that an American movie star had gotten to him first.

But the Mexican government wasted no time claiming that of course it had known what was going on. As a result, a lot of media outlets have written that Penn "led" Mexican law enforcement to capture El Chapo in 2016.

But it's worth taking Mexico's claims with a grain of salt. The government is clearly hoping that El Chapo's recapture will allow it to regain some credibility with Mexican voters; even if officials hadn't known about Penn's interview, they have every reason to say they did after the fact.

Also, they're not exactly acting like they knew everything Penn knew about El Chapo: Even though they're claiming Penn led them to Guzmán's location, they're calling in Penn and del Castillo for questioning, particularly about the location of their meeting with Guzman.

Penn's article acknowledges that the American government — or at least the DEA — knew about his trip to visit El Chapo. But it's also clear from the article that the government had a bead on Guzmán already — in fact, according to Penn, Chapo's crew left the site of their meeting for a ranch in Sinaloa where they were immediately placed under a multiday siege by Mexican law enforcement. (Penn didn't accompany them to the ranch; he says the cellphone of one of Guzmán's associates was tracked.)

However, after the Sinaloa standoff — and therefore after Penn's meeting with El Chapo — the Mexican government lost track of Chapo again, at least temporarily. He wasn't recaptured for more than two months after that.

Mexico newspaper headlines el Chapo arrest


Whatever role Penn in particular played in the hunt for El Chapo, the incident might offer a clue as to what did give Guzmán away. At the January 8 press conference announcing Chapo's capture, the attorney general of Mexico said that (as paraphrased by the Chicago Tribune) "authorities zeroed in on Guzmán after movie producers and actresses made contact with Guzmán." That might have been a veiled reference to Penn — or, more likely, to del Castillo. But it could refer to more than the two of them, as well.

Penn portrays El Chapo as a man who is shyly intrigued by Americans' interest in him. It's the least credible part of the article. The involvement of del Castillo indicates that Guzmán and his associates had been thinking about his pop culture image — in Mexico and America — since before his escape from prison. That thirst to control the narrative can lead people who've stayed in the shadows their whole lives to start doing uncharacteristic things (see also: Charles Koch). It's totally plausible that it made El Chapo too uncautious.

Guzmán had a dozen years of experience being on the run, remaining powerful but invisible — being able to eat at the fanciest restaurants in Sinaloa, but only after his men had confiscated any cellphones and weapons the diners might have. Might it be that after his second escape, he wanted the one thing that he didn't already have: not freedom, but publicity?

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