Sean Penn, Executive Producer of El Chapo (Inspired by true events)
by Mari A. Gomez
The story of Joaquin Guzman, ‘El Chapo’s,’ capture has become celebrity news/gossip. It gets weirder by the minute. At the same time, it has further exposed Mexico’s decaying institutions and pursuit of justice.
The Mexican government briefly tried to portray it as a triumph, the result of months of arduous investigation and intelligence gathering, when really it was mostly coincidence (And yes possibly aided by El Chapo's meeting with the actors. We don't really know yet how and if the two are connected. Sean Penn claims now that the government knew El Chapo's whereabouts, but only moved to capture him after they realized the Rolling Stone article would be published. This of course would humiliate the government who claimed to be avidly pursuing the criminal).
The official communications from the Mexican Marines however, seem to indicate that what brought the authorities to the location was a call by a resident who reported firearms and armed men in a house in Los Mochis. It was then the Mexican Marines engaged in gun fire with these armed individuals which just so happened to be high level Sinaloa cartel. This directly led to the later capture of Joaquin Guzman. The moment following the announcement of the detainment led Mexican officials at an event to exchange congratulatory embraces and break into a (shameless) impromptu rendition of the Mexican National Anthem. No Mexican is buying the celebratory response the government is trying to sell. The whole thing is a joke and people are simply more interested in what Sean Penn and Kate del Castillo have to say than what any Mexican official has to say.
Mexican television and mainstream media have a history of over simplifying, distorting facts, obsessing over gossip and innocuous details. As much as the Mexican government is trying to revert the attention back to themselves and sell the narrative of the hard won raid and triumphant Mexican Marines, Sean Penn and Kate del Castillo have straight up stolen the show, perhaps unwittingly. All of a sudden the news about one of the biggest criminals in recent decades has taken on the tone of gossip. It has traversed into the absurd, into the world of fiction, so that the implications seemed to have lost some consequence. The news has been playing incessantly on television, but the coverage is often focused on the wrong details. And what did Chapo tell Kate? And Sean Penn this and Sean Penn that. And are Sean Penn and Kate del Castillo involved? And is what Kate did illegal? The Mexican government can be very effective in distracting people from the real issues and this seems to be what is happening with this story.
Perhaps the questions should be directed at the government. For example, asking about the connections between El Chapo and Miguel Angel Osorio Chong. Chong was in charge when Chapo tunneled his way out of Altiplano and somehow was not fired. Also, about how it was easier for Sean Penn to find El Chapo than it was for the authorities.
The Mexican government has decided to investigate the two actors. As if anybody takes any Mexican investigations seriously at this point anyway, or as if that is what they should be investigating. In his recent interview with CBS, yet to be released in full, Sean Penn alludes to the fact that he might have been set up.
I can't help asking though: Why would El Chapo trust Sean Penn? Has he seen his films? Why should we trust Sean Penn with such sensitive information? Proceso reported that in addition to Sean Penn and Kate del Castillo, there were also two producers present at their October meeting. One was the Spaniard José Ibáñez Martín Pira and the Argentinan Fernando Sulichin. So this was really happening. El Chapo was really serious about making a film about himself. If this is true, why were neither of these two mentioned in the Rolling Stone piece?
To add to all of this, the image portrayed in the video is vastly different from what people might have expected El Chapo to be, perhaps making this whole thing somewhat anticlimactic. The video has given the impression that El Chapo is but a simple peasant who resorted to selling drugs out of desperation. While this is true and applies to most people who go into the drug trade and while it definitely highlights the poverty and desperation most Mexicans find themselves in, somehow El Chapo, with his polite treatment of Kate and openness to Sean Penn doesn’t seem as dangerous anymore. Here’s a calm quiet guy sitting out in some ranch with a rooster crowing in the background, a vocabulary of a child, saying he doesn’t drink and hasn’t touched drugs in twenty years. He says his relationship with his mother is one of affection and love. He says he is not a violent person, but only defends himself. He says that drug trafficking does not depend on one person. People seem to be saying to themselves; Hey, he can’t be that bad.
El Chapo has only a third grade education. As journalist Anabel Hernandez, who has been at the forefront of writing about the narcos for years, stated that El Chapo is not a man of ideas. He is neither sophisticated, nor a person capable of abstract thinking. It’s clear from the interview that he does not operate under any complex or deep ideology. Yet, if he wanted someone to tell his story in a movie, in some way he must have considered the fate of his legacy. Perhaps he understood that Americans are not only avid consumers of drugs and illegal narcotics, which has in part made him who he is, but they are endlessly passionate consumers of entertainment.
It's possible too, I suppose, that El Chapo saw how his contemporaries were being portrayed in the media: like Pablo Escobar and Amado Carillo Fuentes in the Telemundo show El Señor de los Cielos and said: no no no, I can do better than that. My movie will be better.
Journalist Anabel Hernandez is very clear in expressing her opinion that this capture of El Chapo means neither the end of the Sinaloa Cartel, nor the end of El Chapo. It especially doesn’t mean any fundamental change to the corruption that allows people like El Chapo to maintain power. That is, the government.
After a disastrous scandal for Rolling Stone magazine with the UVA rape story in 2014, the Sean Penn article must have been a good opportunity to bounce back. Reading Sean Penn’s piece was interesting for various reasons. One:the often awkward phrasing, odd descriptions, and muddled passages he uses throughout, which makes it an entertaining read solely on that level. This is Sean Penn playing journalist. One of my favorite passages is when Penn is taking a piss and writes:
“Dick in hand, I do consider it among my body parts vulnerable to the knives of irrational narco types, and take a fond last look, before tucking it back into my pants.”
The actor is referencing the many horror stories one hears of narcos cutting off testicles and feeding them back into the mouths of the respective victims. Somehow Penn’s attempt at humor here is somewhat charming, a characteristic I have never attributed to the scrunchy faced actor. At the same time however, while there are several moments in which his awareness of potential danger is made clear, he seems to be having fun with it. He writes about his lack of knowledge of technology, “We sit within quietude of fortified walls that are old New York hotel construction, when walls were walls, and telephones were usable without a Ph.D” Or his short Chuck Palahniuk Fight Club type writing with, “My speculation goes audio. I hear chain saws. I feel splatter. I am Sean's dubitable paranoia.” Sean Penn never really gives the sense of any kind of animosity towards El Chapo. The tone of the piece is almost like an excited boy whose been given an opportunity to meet a comic book villain.
He does briefly acknowledge his awareness of who El Chapo is and the seriousness of what he is doing, “I take no pride in keeping secrets that may be perceived as protecting criminals,” he says. He also points out the faults of the U.S drug war and how that is as complicit to this story as anything else. Sean Penn recently said this was part of his main purpose, to emphasize that much of what drives all of this is the War on Drugs.
Penn writes that he took comfort in the thought that El Chapo did not engage in gratuitous violence. A thought he can simply not prove, but that is contrary to what I’ve read about El Chapo in accounts like Narcoland by Anabel Hernandez. The book describes El Chapo’s early days as a womanizer, a violent and rambunctious careless criminal that was actually turned into the authorities by Amado Carillo Fuentes because he was a liability and attracting negative attention.
His article and interview is valuable however because of the information that Penn reveals regarding El Chapo himself and the odd insights it provides to this high profile enigmatic criminal. It's interesting to see the man answering these questions in a direct way. Yet, how bizarre that Sean Penn chose to write about how he unwittingly releases flatulence in the presence of the most dangerous man in Mexico and comments on how El Chapo says nothing of the matter. A moment Penn takes to be of significance regarding El Chapo’s somewhat refined character. It is these kinds of strange details that I find odd Rolling Stone would leave in.
What is important, I find, is Sean Penn’s description of the journey to El Chapo. The trek to one of the most rivaled, wanted, and famous criminals in the Western Hemisphere seemed relatively easy for Penn, particularly given the fact that the Mexican authorities claim they, along with the DEA, have been arduously searching for El Chapo since his escape from Altiplano prison last summer. Yet somehow Chapo is able to maneuver and maintain these kinds of meetings with two very high profile people?
Is it possible the Mexican government set Sean Penn up? It certainly wouldn't be unthinkable, given their track record.
One of the most important parts in the article is the point when the car Penn travels in reaches a military checkpoint, only to be waved in by the military men after they recognize El Chapo’s son in the car. Sean Penn writes:
“And then, as it seems we are at the entrance of Oz, the highest peak visibly within reach, we arrive at a military checkpoint. Two uniformed government soldiers, weapons at the ready, approach our vehicle. Alfredo lowers his passenger window; the soldiers back away, looking embarrassed, and wave us through. Wow. So it is, the power of a Guzman face. And the corruption of an institution. Did this mean we were nearing the man?”
It is quite possible that Sean Penn was, in fact, entering a kind of Oz. This is clear indication of Mexico’s worst problem: complicity. Collusion between the government and the narcos. Mexican journalists have said it again and again and somehow, hidden in this strange piece by an American actor is that very important piece of information. It is the blurred lines between the authority, the law and the criminals that makes Mexico's violence so complex. No one believes anyone. The people certainly don’t believe the government. This is why nobody cares about whether the Mexican Marines conducted a raid or not. This is why people laughed when Peña Nieto played the National Anthem. This is why Kate del Castillo, back in 2012, suggested that if given a choice whether to trust the government or El Chapo, she would go with the latter. By the way, this seems to be a sentiment many Mexicans share.
It was precisely that comment by Kate del Castillo on Twitter that allegedly started this whole thing. It's what made El Chapo contact her. What a story. Why does El Chapo all of a sudden feel the need to make a movie out of his life? Why does he agree to a picture with Sean Penn for a Rolling Stone article?
This is a fascinating and odd story that I'm sure has yet to fully unravel itself. Sean Penn is not the issue here, although I'm awaiting his full CBS interview. For as it seems right now he sort of stumbled into this opportunity and how the hell do you stumble into the most wanted criminal? But hey, it's not the first time Sean Penn throws himself into a chaotic situation.
Sean Penn admitted to CBS that his article had failed. That his intention was to contribute to the dialogue of the Drug War and the War on Drugs. He alludes to these issues in his article yet he's right, I'm not sure that I got that as the main motivation. Certainly if that was his main goal, it has failed, for the media has turned the news into spectacle. CBS will reveal the entire interview this weekend.
However, as always, the Mexican government reveals itself and is internationally exposed as incompetent, complicit, and corrupt people in cahoots with organized crime. As always, the Mexicans look like idiots, playing a supporting role in their own story, while somehow an American actor got to have a little fun and a U.S publication, who only recently betrayed their reader’s trust, got some really really nice attention. Even a Los Angeles based retailer named Barabas has won, reporting increased demand and sales for replicas of the shirt El Chapo was seen wearing in his recent photograph with Penn.
If El Chapo is extradited, the Mexican government admits that it is unable, or unwilling, to exert justice. If they don’t extradite him, the Mexican government risks losing him again and probably allows for his business to continue. The worst thing, is none of it matters. El Chapo said it himself, the day he does't exist the drug trade will go on. As long as U.S policy remains the same, cartel rivalries continue, and as long as there is demand, there will be supply. It doesn't matter because the Mexicans living in poverty, without jobs, without opportunity,who’ve lost family, who continue to lose family, will most likely carry on as usual. Whole generations of young people without prospective futures will be forced into mediocrity. It doesn’t matter because Mexico is a country with a cancer not easily cured by the removal of one sick cell.