Sean Penn interviewed the most notorious drug lord in the world while Joaquín Guzmán Loera — known as El Chapo — was on the run from his own government and many others.
In an incredible tale involving secret messages and blind trust, Penn ventured into the Mexican jungle with Mexican actress Kate del Castillo and emerged with an on-the-record account for Rolling Stone that is surely stranger than any fictional account he ever portrayed on screen.
Here are 7 top takeaways from the lengthy article:
1. El Chapo hired German engineers to dig the tunnel beneath the prison that allowed him to escape his Mexican jailers last summer. Writes Penn: “Engineers had been flown to Germany last year for three months of extensive additional training necessary to deal with the low-lying water table beneath the prison. A tunnel equipped with a pipe-track-guided motorcycle with an engine modified to function in the minimally oxygenized space, allowing El Chapo to drop through a hole in his cell’s shower floor, into its saddle and ride to freedom.”
2. Penn was not allowed to interview El Chapo with pen and paper or recorder during their seven-hour meeting. That meeting was supposed to be followed by a formal interview eight days later, but the drug lord’s compound was raided by authorities.
Instead, Penn plotted to duck U.S. drug authorities to go back and get the interview done: “I make a plan to hide myself in the trunk of a friend’s car and be driven to a waiting rental vehicle. I would then drive the rental from L.A. to Yuma, Arizona, then cross the border at Algodones. I’m familiar with this crossing — papers are not checked, and vehicles are waved through without scrutiny. I’d then drive the 80-some-odd miles from the border to the Grande Desierto, and the village of El Golfo de Santa Clara, rendezvousing with a cartel plane that could take me to El Chapo.” That route is concluded to be too dangerous, and instead Penn sends a list of messages by BBM.
3. Penn does not want to be seen as a Pollyana. He was aware of the dangers of the interview and the criticism he’d face for appearing to play along with a notorious criminal: “This will be the first interview El Chapo had ever granted outside an interrogation room, leaving me no precedent by which to measure the hazards. I’d seen plenty of video and graphic photography of those beheaded, exploded, dismembered or bullet-riddled innocents, activists, courageous journalists and cartel enemies alike. I was highly aware of committed DEA and other law-enforcement officers and soldiers, both Mexican and American, who had lost their lives executing the policies of the War on Drugs. The families decimated, and institutions corrupted.”
He later writes:” Wasn’t it soullessness that I must perceive in him for myself to be perceived here as other than a Pollyanna? An apologist? I tried hard, folks. I really did. And reminded myself over and over of the incredible life loss, the devastation existing in all corners of the narco world.”
4. Penn has a strong point of view on the U.S. war on drugs — he thinks it’s a complete failure. He writes: “At an American taxpayer cost of $25 billion per year, this war’s policies have significantly served to kill our children, drain our economies, overwhelm our cops and courts, pick our pockets, crowd our prisons and punch the clock. “
5. El Chapo is “entirely unapologetic” about his business. “I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world. I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats,” he tells Penn.
6. El Chapo does not consider himself to be violent. Penn asks: Are you prone to violence, or do you use it as a last resort? He responds: Look, all I do is defend myself, nothing more. But do I start trouble? Never. Penn asks: What about the violence attached to this type of activity? Response: In part, it is because already some people already grow up with problems, and there is some envy and they have information against someone else. That is what creates violence.
7. El Chapo plans to die of natural causes, unlike Pablo Escobar. “I know one day I will die,” he says. “I hope it is of natural causes.”