Last updateFri, 07 Dec 2018 11am

Did vanity bring down ‘ranchero’ El Chapo

When Sean Penn gets involved in “foreign affairs” one should expect weird stuff to happen.

The Oscar-winning actor and humanitarian has a history of mixing it with unsavory – in the U.S. government’s eyes – individuals on the world stage (Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, etc.).

But even his admirers would have been surprised at the revelation that last October Penn ventured deep into the Sierra Nevada to meet with fugitive drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.  Details of the meeting and Guzman’s videotaped answers to written questions submitted by Penn appeared in a long, rambling article written by the actor and published – probably in haste judging by the lack of editing – by Rolling Stone magazine a day after the Sinaloa Cartel leader’s dramatic capture on January 8 (see story page one).  

Penn’s travels into the interior of Mexico may have unwittingly led to the narcotraficante’s downfall.  Unofficially, Mexican law enforcement officials have indicated that the movements of Penn, and his facilitator, Mexican actress Kate del Castillo, were being followed and helped them track Guzman to his mountain hideouts, and assist in zeroing in on their target last week at a safe house in Los Mochis, Sinaloa.

While one can imagine why someone with Penn’s trajectory might wish to pay court to a man regarded by some as a Robin Hood-like social leveler (though by the majority as a villain of the most nefarious kind), it seems unfathomable that Guzman – supposedly a humble ranchero at heart – would choose to put his freedom at risk by hanging out with a self-absorbed American celebrity. 

Or have we judged Guzman wrongly?  Reports now suggest the capo is keen to get his story on to the big screen. The meeting with Penn was potentially a first step in getting a blockbuster movie project off the ground. The project was to be spearheaded by Penn’s showbiz amiga Del Castillo, who befriended Guzman four years ago after tweeting him and challenging him to “traffic in love not drugs.”  (Guzman is said to be besotted by the 43-year-old actress, who herself played the role of a drug “lordess” in the Spanish-language series “La Reina del Sur.”)  

In a surreal 17-minute videotape released Tuesday by Rolling Stone, in which Guzman answers Penn’s questions, the kingpin seems to be trying hard to portray himself as a down-to-earth, “regular guy” who loves his family, began work in the narco trade by necessity rather than choice and only resorts to violence to defend himself. Wearing a garish blue shirt, (we later learned it came from a fashionable Los Angeles boutique) Guzman is sitting on a plastic chair amid background noises of chickens clucking and women and children chattering, while men, some dressed in fatigues bearing weapons, can be seen walking calmly behind him. He talks respectfully, without using slang or crude language, as if drug trafficking were a legal activity in the same vein as farming, remarking that the trade doesn’t rely on one person and will continue long after he is not around.  

Why Guzman agreed to record the video is less clear.  Not a squeak was heard from him for 13 years between his first escape in 2001 and capture in 2014. Why the need to go public now if he is happy with his family, as he claims in the video? Is this a man who knows his days are numbered and is carefully trying to create a more sympathetic image of himself? Or is his dream of a Hollywood biopic bringing to the surface a previously unknown narcissistic side to his character?

Despite its evident journalistic flaws, the Rolling Stone story still makes for compulsive reading, although both its editors and Penn have been criticized for allowing Guzman to vet the copy before publication.  He did not make any changes, Penn notes at the outset.

Neither Mexican nor U.S. authorities have hinted whether they will seek to prosecute Penn or Del Castillo, who became a U.S. citizen in September, for their dealings with the cartel leader.  Legally their hands may be tied since it’s unlikely either of the two actors “aided and abetted” Guzman. Penn told U.S. media that he has “done nothing wrong” but refused to make any other comment about his meeting with Guzman or the possibility that his jaunt into the mountains put Mexican authorities on the fugitive’s trail.

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