By Nathaniel Janowitz
The story of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán was already stranger than fiction — but it took an even more bizarre turn on Saturday night when Rolling Stone published a lengthy feature story authored by the actor Sean Penn, who met the fugitive drug lord at a mountain hideout.
Shortly after the movie star’s account of his meeting with the Sinaloa Cartel kingpin was published, a Mexican official told the Associated Press that the encounter helped authorities track Chapo down.The drug lord’s encounter with Penn in October was the first time Chapo has ever been interviewed by any media outlet. The story behind the story involves throwaway cell phones, encrypted messages, a secret rendezvous brokered by a Mexican soap opera star, and, ultimately, Guzmán being taken into custody on Friday by Mexican authorities after a shootout in the coastal town of Los Mochis in the northern part of Sinaloa.
“I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world. I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats,” Chapo reportedly boasted to Penn while eating tacos and drinking tequila together in a seven-hour meeting that began on the night of October 2 and lasted until 4am the next day.
Penn repeatedly stresses that the interview was arranged with the help of Mexican actress Kate del Castillo, who played a Sinaloa drug boss in the popular telenovela La Reina del Sur.
Related: Chapo’s Return to Prison: The Hunt, the Biopic, and a Weakness for Tunnels
Chapo had developed a messaging relationship with Del Castillo after she published a letter through Twitter in 2012 saying she had more trust in him than in governments, and urged him to start “trafficking with love.” She also went with Penn to meet him at an undisclosed location in the Golden Triangle of the Sierra Madre mountains, a lawless region of northwest Mexico that is considered a stronghold of the drug lord’s cartel. The actor writes that the drug lord treated her “like a daughter returning from college” when they got there.
Penn described chatting with Guzmán, gaining his trust — Rolling Stone prefaced the story by saying it was “submitted for the subject’s approval before publication” — and organizing a more formal two-day sit down interview that was supposed to take place eight days later. That meeting never happened.
The day after Penn and Chapo parted ways, a major navy-led operation began in the Golden Triangle with the authorities later saying that they had nearly captured Guzmán. Penn wrote that a cellphone used by one of Chapo’s crew put Mexican authorities on the drug lord’s scent.
According to the article, Chapo later sent a note via BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) to Del Castillo explaining what happened.
“On October 6th, there was an operation…two helicopters and 6 BlackHawks began a confrontation upon their arrival,” Penn quoted Chapo as writing. “The marines dispersed throughout the farms. The families had to escape and abandon their homes with the fear of being killed. We still don’t know how many dead in total.”
That raid — and its aftermath on the civilian population in the surrounding area — was detailed in a VICE News documentary.
An anonymous Mexican official confirmed to the AP that the Rolling Stone interview did lead them to El Chapo in October, as noted by Penn.
While not naming Penn and Del Castillo directly, Mexico’s Attorney General Arely Gómez told reporters after Guzmán’s recapture on Friday that the hunt for the capo had received a major boost when it was discovered that he was “intending to film a biographical film, to which end he sought communication with actors and producers.”
According to ABC, both Penn and Del Castillo are now under investigation by Mexican authorities for their contact with the then fugitive drug lord. It’s unclear what sort of criminal charges — if any — the actors could face.
Penn described struggling with encryption technology in his story, and detailed the lengths to which he, Del Castillo, and two other men who are identified only by nicknames had to go in order to make the meeting with Guzmán happen.
The group reportedly flew on a private jet to an undisclosed city in central Mexico, then met up with Guzmán’s 29-year-old son Alfredo Guzmán, who flew with them on a small plane into the Sierra Madre. From there, they drove for several hours into the mountains before meeting Chapo. Penn said the group, including Guzman’s son, was waved through a military checkpoint guarded by two uniformed government soldiers.
Related: Why Chapo’s Capture Won’t Stop the Flow of Weed, Meth, Cocaine, and Heroin
During the meeting, Penn and Chapo chatted while others translated. The actor bemoaned the fact that he didn’t bring a pen and notepad, and said he stuck to questions “one couldn’t forget the answers too.”
One thing Penn remembers is Chapo naming “a host of corrupt major corporations, both within Mexico and abroad” who help him launder money. The drug lord then asked Penn not to publish their names.
After Del Castillo went to bed, Penn noticed an immediate shift in the demeanor of Chapo and his men, who armed themselves to the teeth and dressed in bulletproof vests. After asking Chapo’s son to take a photo of the two together, Penn said goodnight to Chapo and farted — an indiscretion he euphemistically refers to as “minor traveler’s flatulence.”
Penn and Del Castillo left Mexico the next day, but Penn headed back by himself eight days later for the promised second interview that never took place. Eventually, the movie star sent questions to Chapo via BBM and waited for the kingpin’s filmed responses. After a long delay — purportedly because Chapo lacked an English translator, was shy, or lacked the tech savvy to record himself — the responses arrived in a 17-minute video sent to Del Castillo.
The video begins, “I want to make clear that this interview is for the exclusive use of Miss Kate del Castillo and Mister Sean Penn.” So far, Rolling Stone has only released a two-minute clip of the recording.
Chapo’s answers are brief and perhaps less revealing than Penn’s anecdotes.
The movie star describes Guzmán as smiling constantly, and being surprised to hear that people in the United States knew who he was. He calls Donald Trump “mi amigo” and says he met Pablo Escobar once, adding that the legendary Colombian drug lord had a “big house.”
According to Penn, Chapo also presented himself as a family man. In addition to the presence of Alfredo Guzmán, Penn said he also met Chapo’s 32-year-old son Iván Archivaldo Guzmán. The capo even told the actor that the original plan had included his mother — who still lives in Chapo’s hometown of La Tuna in the mountains of Sinaloa — but “something came up.”
Related: Mexico Says It Wants to Extradite Chapo and Predicts a Long Legal Battle With His Lawyers
In the interview, Chapo describes his humble childhood selling soft drinks and oranges, before he started to grow marijuana and poppies at age 15 because his family had no other way to survive.
Though Penn quoted Chapo as bragging about supplying more drugs “than anybody else in the world,” during their face-to-face meeting, the drug lord taped a more humble response to a question about his role in the international drug trade.
Penn asked, “Do you think it is true you are responsible for the high level of drug addiction in the world?” To which Chapo replied, “No, that is false, because the day I don’t exist, it’s not going to decrease in any way at all. Drug trafficking? That’s false.”
Jo Tuckman and Keegan Hamilton contributed to this report
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By Nathaniel Janowitz