CHAPONOVELA: Starring Kate del Castillo, Sean Penn, and the Internet. With special guest Conor McGregor

by Mari Gomez

Episode 1: Enrique Peña Nieto tweets a joke

Enter Enrique Peña Nieto.

On January 8th 2016, Enrique Peña Nieto, known for his oblivious remarks, tweets to the Mexican Republic:


People all over Mexico dropped their forks, stopped their cars, took a break from work, and called their loved ones. What mission? EPN was referring to the re-capture of Joaquin El Chapo Guzman. 
Mexicans responded mostly with incredulity at the audacity of their own government and, of course, a barrage of satirizing memes.

Endless television coverage about the dramatic Seal Team 6-esque raid on El Chapo’s home in Los Mojis, Sinaloa followed. Videos of El Chapo’s living quarters, of the dead cartel members, of a dirty Chapo being put into a police car raided both television and social media. 

Exit Enrique Peña Nieto

Meanwhile troubles in Mexico continue. As writer Jenaro Villamil discusses, he has also written about the circus surrounding this story, there is no word on the many other missions the government has yet to accomplish.   The 43 disappeared, the recent murder of a young Mexican mayor, the violence in Veracruz, the many others still disappeared, the devaluing of the Mexican peso and on and on...

 Translation: If you love El Chapo let him go, if he comes back, he's yours if he doesn't he never was

Translation: If you love El Chapo let him go, if he comes back, he's yours if he doesn't he never was

Episode 2: Sean Penn goes to Mexico

Enter American actor and activist Sean Penn

Then, while images of the Mexican Marines capturing El Chapo had not yet dissipated, Sean Penn’s name began trickling in. He ignited yet another layer of this story with his 10,000 word piece for Rolling Stone magazine chronicling his meeting with the famous drug lord and the seventeen minutes of video with El Chapo answering entry level questions about his childhood, how he loves his mother, and how he doesn’t consider himself a violent person. 

The media narrative focused the spotlight on the wrong character. What followed were conversations about Sean Penn’s lack of journalistic integrity. 

Enter Mexican actress: Kate del Castillo. 

Penn’s article reveals that it was her who had the initial contact with the Mexican drug lord. 

Then Sean Penn did what Americans have done for decades in Latin America: They get in, they stir shit up, and then they get out. 

Sean Penn spoke to Charlie Rose about  how he intended to start a conversation about the War on Drugs, but that his article had failed to do that.  Damn right it did.

Exit Sean Penn.

Sean Penn then exited stage left and Del Castillo was left drowning in the spotlight inside a theater of madmen. After Sean Penn talked to Charlie Rose on Sixty Minutes (which gave the program huge ratings) he left Kate del Castillo to face very real consequences and accusations. Penn and Rolling Stone walked away scot-free leaving Kate for the Mexican government to use as a scapegoat. Journalist Lydia Cacho reported in Proceso  that Kate was merely used as the conduit for a good headline for Rolling Stone. Cacho was the first journalist to speak to Kate del Castillo. Recent statements from Kate's lawyer suggest that Kate might not have even known before the meeting with El Chapo that Penn was writing a piece for a magazine..

 Rolling Stone has yet to do any kind of follow up on the story other than their Wikipedia-esque timeline of El Chapo’s career. 

Episode 3: El Chapo Falls in Love

In 2012 Kate del Castillo criticizes the Mexican government and invites El Chapo to “traffic with love.” El Chapo contacts her and they begin a series of friendly communications. He apparently wanted and trusted only Kate del Castillo to be in charge of the making of a biographical film about his life. He had been receiving many offers from Hollywood interested in getting in on the rights to his story. As always Hollywood ready to jump on any good opportunity.  As if that wasn’t juicy enough the Mexican government seems to have found El Chapo’s celebrity crush rather endearing. AT the same time, they dislike Kate because she speaks out. 

The Mexican government, although they recently denied this,(but who else would have access??) released the text communications between the capo and the actress to the media. Now they had their drama: a love interest. 

El Chapo’s texts were clearly admiring of the actress, sweet sounding, one might say romantic. As many pointed out, the release of these communications was not only most likely unconstitutional, but certainly an invasion of privacy and a breach of protocol in terms of releasing possible evidence of an ongoing investigation. That is not to mention that the communications of El Chapo aided in softening his image as a criminal and emphasizing his ‘romantic side.’

Enter the desperate media.

Rumors about Kate del Castillo being pregnant with El Chapo’s son appeared as click bait on trashy internet sites. Online magazines published and re-published these text messages suggesting a possible affection between the two. A Mexican artist quickly composed a narco-corrido of Kate and El Chapo, getting himself a prime time spot on Spanish television and chiming in with his irrelevant opinion on the matter.

Serious analysis by respected journalists like Anabel Hernandez were not as readily shown on television; she called for a more serious investigation not towards the actors, but towards the government entities responsible for aiding El Chapo in the past. It’s been said many times and become common knowledge in Mexico: an organization like the Sinaloa Cartel cannot be as powerful and dominating without government and military collusion.

To add conflict to the love story, the Mexican government announced that Kate del Castillo might have broken the law by communicating with a criminal and that she might have taken money. She had recently been involved in trying to sell a new Tequila called Honor and speculation about Kate taking money from El Chapo and possibly being involved with laundered cash started filtering into the media. 
Because of Kate’s silence the media has been able to repeat, hash and re-hash the same questions and news clips to continue creating content and stalling the story on this plot point. 

Spanish television networks constantly show news segments about Kate del Castillo and El Chapo.


Episode 4: Kate del Castillo orders tacos

It was huge news when on Saturday Jan 23rd Kate del Castillo was spotted by TMZ going to a Mexican restaurant in L.A. I watched an entire segment on Univision where, a few days after Kate was spotted there, a reporter walks, microphone in hand, on the same sidewalk that Kate del Castillo used to get to this Mexican restaurant.

The reporter then proceeds to sit on the exact table del Castillo ate in and described what she ate and how she poured her tequila. She said things like “This is the exact table where Kate del Castillo ordered her tacos just a few days ago…” 

She then goes around to the employees of this restaurant and asks them about del Castillo’s demeanor, to which they all reply she was very nice and seemed normal. The whole segment was part of a larger program of El Gordo y La Flaca, which said absolutely nothing new or of value and focused on Kate del Castillo’s elusive statements and apparently newsworthy appearance in a Mexican restaurant in L.A. 

Episode 5: El Chapo makes an appearance in the UFC

In a recent UFC press conference Conor Mcgregor, featherweight champion of the world, got close to the mic and said: “I am El Chapo in his prime.” The athlete was sporting a blue silk shirt in the style of the famous druglord, as seen in the recent photograph accompanying Sean Penn’s Rolling Stone article. 

Such a statement coming from McGregor is no surprise; it’s precisely his brash and unapologetic personality that have, along with his undeniable talents and skills, made him such a monumental figure of the sports world. 

Who knows if McGregor thought deeply about his evocation of the drug lord in the sports arena or if it was his usual bravado that prompted him, but it had some thought behind it; the silk shirt took planning. Perhaps at some point McGregor actually saw similarities between him and the famous Sinaloa Cartel leader. El Chapo, for a long time was rather untouchable.

Untouchable is precisely a word that McGregor associates with himself in the octagon and in the UFC in general. Perhaps too McGregor recognized the way El Chapo has already traversed into the world of legend. The champion recognized something, for he went into the trouble of posing in the awkward El Chapo-like stance during the stare down as a mockery to his opponent as some conjuring or strange homage to what was once the most wanted man in the world after Osama Bin Laden.

It's as if El Chapo has now become a mere image, somewhat detached from its historical and political context. Perhaps he's an image that represents Mexican corruption. For, just like Colombians, Mexicans will have a hard time shaking off the "narco" associations for a long long time. 

Episode 5: Reality imitating fiction imitating reality

How bizarre that Kate del Castillo, the protagonist in La Reina del Sur, one of the first narconovelas to receive huge ratings and thrust the entire genre of narconovelas into the Spanish speaking television world, would then become entangled in the real story about a real drug lord. 

I can’t help but visualize El Chapo sitting on his couch watching La Reina del Sur and becoming enamored, not only by the attractive actress, but by the very romanticized portrayal of drug traffickers like him. Perhaps it was then he decided he too wanted to be represented on the screen. He wanted to see himself in the world of fiction, not knowing that he had already become fiction. 

However, there are recent reports that the Mexican government itself is trying to push this very scenario because of its entertainment value, its metafiction qualities, and the diversion this causes. 

It was first reported that certain books and DVD's were found in El Chapo's bedroom. However, a report published in the Mexican newspaper La Jornada on January 31st by Gustavo Castillo Garcia cites a report by El Canal Seis de Julio who investigated the videos released by the Mexican Marines on the day they captured Joaquin Guzman Loera. This report suggests that those DVD's and books were planted.

The analysis points out that there are certain anomalies with the scene, particularly El Chapo’s bedroom. At first the government reported that on El Chapo’s bed they found a DVD of La Reina del Sur,  yet this analysis takes a close look at the official video released moments after el Chapo’s capture by the Mexican marines and it shows nothing on Chapo's bed. That is, in one video there is nothing and then suddenly there is.  This might suggest that these things were planted in El Chapo’s bed as evidence. 

And what on earth would possess the Mexican authorities to plant DVD’s of a narconovela, starring Kate del Castillo on El Chapo’s bed?

It doesn't make any sense, but it’s a damn good detail. And like any writer will tell you, God, to some the Devil, resides there.

Episode 6: El Chapo gets a dog

El Chapo is back in Altiplano prison (the same prison he escaped from months ago). Reports emerge about his treatment at the prison. He is constantly transferred from cell to cell and always guarded, always with a police dog on him. There were reports about El Chapo’s current wife being denied visiting rights. All this is perhaps an attempt to appease the population’s skepticism about the drug lord returning to Mexican prison.

Sean Penn was right, the message that the world extracted from his article was not regarding the American policy or the complicity of the Mexican government with El Chapo Guzman. His piece did not incite questions of responsible parties in the government, banks and enterprises that facilitate the laundering of drug money. It did not turn up the volume on questions about why the Mexican government was unable to catch their most wanted criminal, their most prioritized “mission” even though a high profile actress was not only communicating with him via her Blackberry from the U.S, but calmly met with him in Mexico, where they enjoyed a nice relaxing dinner.

A few days after the capture, it was reported that one of the weapons that was found in El Chapo’s residence came from Operation Fast and Furious. An American made weapon. A fact that was also not as frequently replicated as the affectionate texts between El Chapo and Kate. Operation Fast and Furious, which has an undeniable role in the Drug War and has facilitated weapons to the drug cartels, has somehow stayed out of the mainstream narrative. 

Most Mexicans do not believe that their government was actually attempting to capture El Chapo, but they have watched the entire story play out like a bad action film. El Chapo was ‘on the run’ for seven years before that during the entire presidency of Felipe Calderon, the president who claimed to be cracking down on drug dealers. During Calderon’s presidency the U.S gave Mexico 1.3 billion dollars to fight the cartels and still they could not find El Chapo, but they made the Sinaloa Cartel much stronger. The evidence shows that during Calderon’s presidency the number of captured drug dealers and cartel members were disproportionately NOT Sinaloa cartel. In fact, Sinaloa cartel grew during that time. Various investigative accounts such as Narcoland and an NPR analysis of drug cartel arrests in 2011 show how the Calderon presidency favored the Sinaloa Cartel.

Episode 7: El Chapo Gets a Make Over

Another consequence of this Chaponovela, was that the perception people held of El Chapo has changed. In fact, the video interview seemed almost inconsequential after the first few days the story broke.

El Chapo did not give the sense that he is the ruthless villain everyone has made him out to be. In the video he appears quiet, serene, and almost reflective about his constant state as a fugitive. Penn’s article seemed, perhaps inadvertently, almost sympathetic to the man.
The most recent image of El Chapo has been carved out of a seventeen minute interview, his texts messages with Kate del Castillo, his tunnel building, his attempt to make a movie of his life, the DVD’s of La Reina del Sur on his bed, etc. Yet, his complex history of criminal dealings, murders and tons and tons of drugs to U.S consumers, plus the very viable suspected relationships with the Mexican government is largely background. 

If you read accounts of his beginnings, his rise to the top, it’s not of a simpleton country boy who was just trying to make a living. His cordial messages to Kate del Castillo are a world away from his history as a womanizer, who during his first stay at Puente Grande prison had frequent female visitors, including prostitutes and female detainees he seduced. The guy married 18 year old Emma Coronel Aispuro when he was about fifty one years old. The problem is the video doesn’t match the image of a mastermind murderer. To use one example: his first prison sentence, before he escaped in a laundry hamper, the two ex-wardens of the Puente Grande prison, who knew the ins and outs of the complex, who suspected corruption and the power of the cartel within the prison, were shot dead, one of them, Juan Castillo Alonso, in front of his wife, son, and grandchildren.

I watched those seventeen minutes again and again, trying to look for signs of El Chapo’s dark side. Was El Chapo being himself in that video? Was he toning it down for the camera? Was he already acting, making his movie? Am I being witness to his movie right now?

Episode 9: The Mexican Government Goes After Kate

Out of all people the Mexican government is trying to prosecute/arrest/question it is Kate del Castillo?  The actress told Univision that the Mexican government wants to destroy her. The mainstream media is speculating about when and where Kate will go testify against El Chapo and if this will bring charges against her. Kate has become the protagonist of the government’s attempt to stage a “serious” investigation.

Jenaro Villamil in his recent piece in Proceso points out that the Mexican government’s attempt to vilify Kate del Castillo is going to backfire. I agree with this assessment; we’ve seen it backfire before because the government seems to be unaware that people are not really buying their stories anymore. 

When the government went against popular journalist Carmen Aristegui, their campaign backfired and only increased Aristegui’s power and credibility. In an attempt to destroy her they made her stronger. Not to mention that everyone knows El Chapo has connections to the government. The PGR (General Attorney's Office) of Mexico has exposed their fear of what El Chapo could say or would say to implicate them.

Most Mexicans support Kate del Castillo. As I explore in the recent Rift print issue, the government has always had close ties to television giants Televisa, who for a long time controlled the programming most Mexicans watched. Televisa for many years produced an abundance of telenovelas of which actresses like Kate del Castillo starred in. (She was employed by Televisa for a time and recently told journalist Carmen Aristegui that she was never well paid enough to afford the kind of residence First Lady Angelica Maria claims to have bought with Televisa earnings. It was that house that became a scandal for the EPN government in late 2014 and one they have yet been unable to fully shake off.) The government doesn’t realize that they are trying to destroy a beloved figure that at some point has been in the homes of millions of Mexicans. Throughout the years, in her portrayals she has lived with the Mexican people. Just like the government attempts to use the fictionalization of facts and news to create drama, they’ve forgotten that the very dramas people grew up with, that television networks and the powers that be used to distract them from the real issues, burrow a special place in their hearts. Imagine the U.S government going after The Olsen Twins. Ok, that's a bad example. Yet, for many people, including myself, we remember Kate del Castillo from our childhoods and see her as a kind of compatriot.  Del Castillo is not only respected in Mexico, but she is loved, admired, and highly regarded as an intelligent woman who has served as a role model and done a lot of good. All things nobody associates with the government. 

Most importantly, she is more trustworthy than the government who has, for a long time, constructed their own ridiculous fictions, obscured the facts and focused on artificial plot points that advance the terrible tragedy that is the Drug War and to some degree the Mexican state.

When Conor McGregor evoked El Chapo in that press conference, he was only growing the legend that had already been set to motion. He made El Chapo cool and stylish. It had already become theater. El Chapo lives in a dimension of fantasy now; he’s no longer real and perhaps to the government’s advantage, it will become  difficult to undo the fictionalization and connect so much real pain, damage, and hurt to someone who has become a character out of a badly written telenovela.

Like most telenovelas, the ending is predictable: Nothing has changed in Mexico, the poor are still poor, the rich are still rich, and Americans are still entertained. 

The End.

Or is it?

Mari GomezComment