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The drug lord, the actor and the ‘lousy’ editor: When Penn met El Chapo

Alfredo Estrella, AFP | A woman reads La Jornada newspaper in Mexico City, on January 10, 2016 which shows a picture of drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman (right) shaking hands with US actor Sean Penn

Sean Penn’s bizarre interview with Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzman has raised legal and ethical questions for the drug lord’s unlikely interviewer and the journalistic profession he dabbled with.


Rolling Stone magazine rushed the actor's 10,000-word article to publication on Saturday, just one day after Mexican officials captured Guzman in a dramatic raid that left five people dead and capped a months-long manhunt for the fugitive drug lord.

The interview – in which Guzman bragged, over sips of tequila, about supplying “more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world” – added an improbable twist to the saga of the mustachioed kingpin, a two-time prison breaker and both Mexico’s and America’s most wanted criminal.

El Chapo, who is back in the maximum-security prison he spectacularly escaped from in July, now faces a lengthy extradition process to the US, where he is wanted on a clutch of charges including drug trafficking and homicide.

But for now, his story has been sidelined by the media frenzy that greeted the Hollywood star’s brazen interview, which drew baffled and often angry responses in Penn’s home country.


The White House said Guzman’s boast about his trafficking exploits in the article was “maddening”, while Senator Marco Rubio, a leading contender in forthcoming Republican primaries, described the interview as “grotesque”.

Much of the deluge of criticism came from journalists who questioned the ethical merits of the actor’s interview.

Many took issue with Penn’s sometimes “playful prose” when discussing his meeting with El Chapo, the top figure in a criminal industry that has claimed tens of thousands of lives in bloody drug wars.

Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron tweeted a link to a December story about the dangers and death faced by Mexican journalists, commenting: "Good moment to remember what happens to real journalists who cover Mexican drug traffickers."

Sean Penn interview helped capture drug lord 'El Chapo'

There was widespread condemnation of a disclaimer on the article, which cautioned that “an understanding was brokered with the subject that this piece would be submitted for the subject’s approval before publication”.

Andrew Seaman, the chair of the ethics committee for the Society of Professional Journalists, wrote in a blog piece that “[a]llowing any source control over a story’s content is inexcusable”.

He added: “The practice of pre-approval discredits the entire story – whether the subject requests changes or not. The writer, who in this case is an actor and activist, may write the story in a more favorable light and omit unflattering facts in an attempt to not to be rejected.”

Others defended Penn, instead pouring scorn on “jealous” journalists. Screenwriter Zack Stentz tweeted: “It's hilarious watching the entire media class hating on Sean Penn for scoring an interview any of them would have killed their mothers for.”

‘A scoop is a scoop’

Alice Antheaume, deputy director of the School of Journalism at Sciences-Po Paris, said the article’s flaws had more to do with lousy editing than the author’s identity.

“A scoop is a scoop, regardless of whose name features in the byline,” she told FRANCE 24. The problem, she said, lay in the article’s production and editing – or lack thereof.

“Penn seems to be confused about his role: it is not clear whether he poses as an actor, an activist, a producer or a journalist,” Antheaume argued, noting the article’s excessive focus on its author, in one case indulging in a comparison between his childhood and Guzman's.

She said the drug lord’s depiction as a Robin Hood-like figure, without the evidence and testimonies required to substantiate such a portrayal, constituted a more serious flaw.

But in both cases, as in the decision to let Guzman approve the piece, Antheaume lays the blame squarely on Rolling Stone’s editing staff.

“This is all the more regrettable given that a recent piece on an alleged gang rape at a university campus had already highlighted the magazine’s failure to verify information,” she said, referring to a widely discredited article published last year.

Protecting sources

Recent – and unproven – Mexican claims that Penn’s interview helped bring about Guzman’s arrest has fuelled suggestions that the actor had failed to protect his sources, a golden rule for all journalists, regardless of who they are dealing with.

Penn has been secretive about how he landed the controversial interview, saying only that he was put in touch with the drug lord through Mexican telenovela star Kate del Castillo, who was in talks with Guzman about a biopic.

He wrote in the Rolling Stone article of elaborate security precautions, including the use of burner phones to avoid being detected. He said he didn’t think his conversations were tracked. However, as he flew to Mexico for the meeting, he wrote, "I see no spying eyes, but I assume they are there."

In an interview with the New York Times, Penn’s editor at Rolling Stone, Jan Wenner, said the magazine had done “everything that a traditional journalism operation would have done in terms of protecting sources”.

Wenner said Guzman appeared to have become careless with those he contacted while on the run, and would most likely have been tracked whether or not Penn wrote an article.

Guzman’s reported interest in having a movie made of his life appears to confirm the notion of a pompous El Chapo fatefully lowering his guard.

Botched raid

Penn wrote in Rolling Stone that Guzman wanted del Castillo, who had portrayed a drug trafficker in a Mexican television series, involved in the project.

That involvement reportedly caught the eye of Mexican officials, who said they had been watching del Castillo for months and that contacts between Guzman's lawyers and the actress helped them track down the fugitive.

Police raided El Chapo’s hideout in rural Durango State a few days after the October 2 meeting with Penn. Guzman evaded authorities then, but was finally captured months later in Los Mochis.

AFP file photos showing, from left to right, US actor Sean Penn, Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, and Mexican actress Kate del Castillo.
AFP file photos showing, from left to right, US actor Sean Penn, Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, and Mexican actress Kate del Castillo.

It is not clear whether Penn was also being followed at the time. Mexican newspaper El Universal published 10 images Monday it claimed to have obtained from a government intelligence file. They appeared to show Penn being monitored as he arrived in Mexico.

In the photographs, the man identified as Penn, wearing dark glasses and a baseball cap, is shown arriving with del Castillo at an airport, then at a hotel, and greeting the men who apparently took them to a small airstrip, from which they flew to the jungle camp to meet Guzman.

In an interview with a local radio station, Attorney General Arely Gomez said Mexican investigators were following the movements of one of Guzman's lawyers, not necessarily Penn or del Castillo.

Asked whether Penn or del Castillo were under investigation, Gomez said a "new line" of inquiry had been opened that could include them or Guzman's lawyers, and could involve "covering up" for Guzman "or something bigger".

A Mexican federal official speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed to AFP that both actors would be questioned “to determine responsibilities”, without specifying when.

‘Nothin’ to hide’

Penn’s actions are bound to face scrutiny by officials on both sides of the borders, though experts say they are extremely unlikely to entail legal challenges – unless it emerged Penn had aided and abetted Guzman in some way.

In the past authorities have decided not to go after journalists or former officials who've done interviews with notorious figures, the BBC noted, offering the example of journalist Robert Fisk’s interviews with Osama bin Laden, which did not lead to prosecution.

Quoting unnamed officials in Washington, AP news agency said Mexico was pressing the US to find out more about the actor’s dealings with the drug lord. But it is unclear if prosecutors would try to force the actor to turn over information about his interview.

Should US authorities subpoena Penn or want him to testify against Guzman, it would be difficult to force the actor to reveal facts beyond the published interview, since he could invoke "journalistic privilege", which protects reporters from divulging information about their work.

Despite Penn’s high profile and the fact that he travelled to Mexico at his own expense, there is little doubt he was engaged in a journalistic activity when he met El Chapo, said George Freeman, director of the Media Law Resource Center, a non-profit group in New York.

"Being a movie star wouldn't disqualify him from the journalistic privilege," Freeman told AP.

Of particular interest to investigators could be Penn's revelations that the drug lord discussed "a host of corrupt major corporations" that helped Guzman launder money from his vast criminal enterprise.

The actor said in his article he agreed not to publish the company names. He has since remained tight-lipped about the interview, offering only in a brief email conversation with AP that he had “nothin’ to hide”.

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