It was the interview heard ‘round North America—the clandestine meeting between actor Sean Penn and notorious drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, and the Rolling Stone article that followed. But what Penn intended to be a vehicle to initiate a deeper conversation about US drug policy ended up being a mockery of investigative journalism, and an example of a lifelong criminal manipulating an American activist for his own agenda.
By now, many Americans are familiar when the general gist of Penn’s interaction with Guzmán. The drug lord was interested in creating a movie about his life, so he reached out to famous Mexican telenovela and movie actress Kate del Castillo to produce it. Penn heard about the connection, and was able to piggyback onto a meeting with Guzmán in a secret location in Mexico in October 2015. After taking extensive measures to prevent detection and identification, Penn and del Castillo met with El Chapo for seven hours. Later on, Guzmán also provided a short video tape of his responses to some of Penn’s questions. The result was a rambling piece over 10,000 words long in Rolling Stone magazine that was published the day after Guzmán was recaptured by military forces after being on the fun for 16 months.
To say the interview was met with controversy would be an understatement. The loudest protests came from veteran drug war journalists, many of whom routinely risk their lives to cover cartel-related events in Mexico. They criticized the notion of Penn portraying himself as a bona fide journalist, the softball questions he asked El Chapo, and the magazine’s violation of one of journalism’s top rules—providing the draft article to Guzmán for approval prior to publication. The article itself was rambling, heavily editorialized, and clearly written with a political agenda in mind. People familiar with the horrors of the drug war, who had lost loved ones to kidnapping or torture and murder, were appalled that Penn kept emphasizing Guzmán’s “humanity” and came across as glorifying the life of a drug trafficking murderer.
After the article was published in Rolling Stone, Penn laid low and mostly avoided the controversy and criticism, aside from telling one outlet he had “nothing to hide.” He finally broke his silence about the meeting in an interview with Charlie Rose for 60 Minutes on CBS. Much to the relief of probably hundreds of drug war reporters everywhere, Rose asked Penn some pressing questions to which so many people were desperate to hear answers.
Unfortunately, Penn’s rambling and nonsensical answers likely left viewers even more confused. When asked why he wanted to go to Mexico to interview El Chapo, Penn replied he wanted to use the experience as a way to initiate a meaningful conversation about US drug policy. Rose repeatedly said to Penn, “You’re not naïve.” Perhaps the American public might assume that based on Penn’s experience as an activist and humanitarian. However, believing that an interview with the most wanted man in the Western Hemisphere—who, notably, hasn’t been interviewed in over two decades—is like thinking a meeting with the leader of ISIL might lead to a discussion about prisoner rights in Guantanamo Bay. Penn even said to Rose, “My article should not have made this much noise. El Chapo should not have been this popular a figure to read about.”
Penn didn’t help his cause when he criticized journalists unhappy with his methods and ethics in securing and conducting the meeting with Guzmán. He told Rose, “I’m really sad about the state of journalism in our country. It has been an incredible hypocrisy and an incredible lesson in just how much they don’t know and how disserved we are.” Penn said this, despite the fact he has very little experience with or expertise on Mexico’s drug war, the Sinaloa cartel, and El Chapo’s sordid history. His response to criticism about his reporting skills? “Again, journalists who want to say that I’m not a journalist. Well, I want to see the license that says that they’re a journalist.”
Ultimately, Sean Penn feels his article failed because it focused too much on El Chapo and not enough on US drug policy. He doesn’t regret meeting with Guzmán, but regrets “that people misunderstood what [he] did.” What Penn may regret later is allowing himself to be used and manipulated by a drug kingpin for his own purposes. Guzmán used Penn to spread the word he only engages in violence “for defensive purposes,” and that he has a great relationship with his mother. And Penn—ever the idealist—gobbled up and spit out any indication that Guzmán was simply a person like anyone else. Forgive us, Mr. Penn, if we find that concept hard to swallow.
Sylvia Longmire is a border security expert and Contributing Editor for Breitbart Texas. You can read more about cross-border issues in her latest book, Border Insecurity: Why Big Money, Fences, and Drones Aren’t Making Us Safer.