Actor Sean Penn Interviewed Fugitive Drug Trafficker 'El Chapo' Before Recapture

Actor Sean Penn Interviewed Fugitive Drug Trafficker ‘El Chapo’ Before Recapture

The actor Sean Penn met with Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the Mexican drug lord known as “El Chapo,” in a jungle hide-out in October, according to an article Mr. Penn wrote for Rolling Stone magazine that was published Saturday night.

Mr. Guzmán escaped from prison in July and was on the run when he met with Mr. Penn. The drug kingpin was arrested Friday, and the authorities have suggested there was a connection between his capture and his meeting with the actor.

Here is what you need to know about the secret mountaintop meeting between the actor and Mr. Guzmán, the head of the Sinaloa cartel.

How Did Sean Penn Get Access to ‘El Chapo’?

Mr. Penn’s article is a cloak-and-dagger tale of a dive into the secretive world of the Mexican drug trade, and the connection the actor describes between himself and Mr. Guzmán is circuitous and shadowy.

The linchpin is a Mexican actress named Kate del Castillo, who once played the mastermind of a drug cartel in a soap opera and posted a Twitter message sympathetic to Mr. Guzmán in 2012. That tweet led to a conversation between herself and Mr. Guzmán’s lawyers and, two years later, to correspondence with the man himself. The drug lord, imprisoned at the time, wanted her to help make a movie about his life.

Mr. Guzmán escaped from prison in July. Mr. Penn met Ms. del Castillo in Los Angeles some time after that through mutual friends who had gotten involved in the film project. They had come to believe that the movie would be impossible to make and, at Mr. Penn’s suggestion, opted to pursue a magazine story instead.

Mr. Guzmán agreed to be interviewed, but Mr. Penn wrote that he suspected it was mostly because the drug lord wanted to meet Ms. del Castillo. “I felt increasingly that I had arrived as a curiosity to him,” the actor wrote.

Kate del Castillo and Sean Penn conducted the interview. Credit Left, Barry King/FilmMagic; Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Kate del Castillo and Sean Penn conducted the interview. Credit Left, Barry King/FilmMagic; Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
How Did Penn Travel to the Jungle Hide-Out?

The trip — from a celebrity’s Los Angeles home to a drug lord’s jungle hide-out — was complicated and, in Mr. Penn’s telling, vague.

Mr. Penn wrote that he, Ms. del Castillo and two associates he refers to only as El Alto and Espinoza took a charter flight from an unnamed airport in Southern California to an unnamed city in Mexico.

After their arrival, they drove to a hotel, where an associate of Mr. Guzmán’s arranged for them to be picked up (while all traffic on nearby streets was stopped) and driven to a dirt airfield roughly an hour and a half outside the city.

They then met Mr. Guzmán’s son and boarded a small plane equipped with radar-scrambling technology that took them on a two-hour flight into a lush mountain range.

Next, they drove for seven hours to a remote jungle clearing dotted with bungalows, where they met Mr. Guzmán and a local family that served them dinner.

Mr. Penn wrote that he saw a few dozen of the drug lord’s men, although Mr. Guzmán later told him that over 100 others were positioned nearby.

What Did ‘El Chapo’ Reveal?

Mr. Penn’s interview with Mr. Guzmán had two parts: a seven-hour face-to-face meeting in the jungle, to which Mr. Penn did not bring a pen, paper or a recording device; and a video the kingpin sent to Ms. del Castillo after Mr. Penn sent him questions via BlackBerry Messenger.

Mr. Penn described their conversation over dinner as casual and warm. He said Mr. Guzmán smiled often.

“I saw him without that smile only in brief flashes,” Mr. Penn wrote. “As has been said of many notorious men, he has an indisputable charisma.”

Mr. Guzmán expressed no interest in politics, Mr. Penn wrote, and doted on Ms. del Castillo throughout the night. He described Mr. Guzmán as “entirely unapologetic” about the impact of the drug trade, and said that he boasted about his success.

“I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world,” Mr. Guzmán was quoted as saying. “I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats.”

At one point over dinner, Mr. Penn asked the drug lord about Donald J. Trump, the Republican presidential candidate who has described Mexicans as “rapists” and proposed deporting undocumented immigrants.

Mr. Penn wrote that the drug lord ironically called Mr. Trump “Mi Amigo!”

The questions that Mr. Penn submitted via BlackBerry Messenger focused largely on Mr. Guzmán’s family and his feelings about drugs. Most of the answers are very short, in part because Mr. Penn was unable to ask follow-up questions or challenge Mr. Guzmán’s answers.

“Well, it’s a reality that drugs destroy,” he replied when asked about the drug trade. “Unfortunately, as I said, where I grew up there was no other way and there still isn’t a way to survive, no way to work in our economy to be able to make a living.”

Mr. Guzmán said that he had not done drugs in many years and described himself as “a person who’s not looking for problems in any way.”

A photo released on Friday by a Mexican website, Plaza de Armas, of Mr. Guzmán, who was recaptured in Los Mochis.
A photo released on Friday by a Mexican website, Plaza de Armas, of Mr. Guzmán, who was recaptured in Los Mochis.
Did the Interview Lead to ‘El Chapo’s’ Arrest?

The short answer: We don’t know.

Though Mr. Guzmán had insisted on a range of security precautions in his meeting with Mr. Penn and Ms. del Castillo, Mr. Penn wrote, “There is no question in my mind” that the Mexican and American authorities were tracking their movements.

The in-person interview took place in October, and Mr. Guzmán was not arrested until Jan. 8, more than two months later. After his capture in a gun battle, however, the Mexican authorities said they had been able to find him in part because he had contacted actors and producers to discuss making a movie about his life.

It was not clear if the actors and producers in question were Mr. Penn, Ms. del Castillo and their associates. But Mr. Penn wrote that once Mr. Guzmán became “interested in seeing the story of his life told on film,” he decided that he “would entrust its telling only to Kate.”

In the hours after Mr. Penn’s article was published on Saturday night, a Mexican official said that all actors and producers who had met with Mr. Guzmán, including Mr. Penn and Ms. del Castillo, were under investigation. 

But it was not clear if the circumstances of the meeting were under investigation or if the individuals themselves would face scrutiny from the Mexican government.

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