What You Need To Know About Sean Penn’s Interview With El Chapo

Sean Penn surprised the world on Saturday with the publication of a Rolling Stone interview he conducted last October with fugitive Mexican drug cartel leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. The article is a long, twisted account of how the interview came to be, with the actual Q&A taking up just a few paragraphs. Before you invest an hour in Penn's winding prose, here's a rundown of what you need to know about it, taken straight from the source and distilled into this guide.

Who Is El Chapo?

The kingpin of the Sinaloa Cartel, one of the world's largest drug-trafficking operations, was serving time in a Mexican maximum security prison when he escaped in July. Incidentally, this was his second prison escape. According to Penn, Guzman said he had engineers undergo special training in Germany to understand how to dig the tunnels from his prison shower, through which he rode a motorcycle to freedom. Naturally, El Chapo's notoriety has earned the attention of would-be filmmakers, who have been courting him to sell his story for years.

The Soap-Star Turned Facilitator

Telenovela superstar Kate del Castillo once played a drug cartel leader in La Reina del Sur. That may have been one reason why she wrote a now-infamous tweet in 2012 that seemed sympathetic to El Chapo while urging him to "traffic in love." The message made its way to the man himself, who began exchanging letters and Blackberry messages with the actress. He decided that del Castillo would be the only showbiz pro in charge of bringing his story to the screen.

Sean Penn Gets Involved

Penn, who makes it clear in his story that he's skeptical about America's War on Drugs, was intrigued by the story of El Chapo's escape and had learned about del Castillo's stalled attempts to make a movie about the drug lord with a mutual acquaintance named Espinoza. Penn reached out with the idea of writing an article and then rang up Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner. Del Castillo agreed to try and make it all happen. Did Penn do this with the idea of involving himself in a movie later on? This is never discussed. Much of the article then details how del Castillo, Espinoza, Penn, and friend El Alto communicate through all sorts of baffling (to Penn, anyway) digital devices to arrange a meeting in person. They were flown by charter, driven, and flown again to a remote, undisclosed location. All the while, Penn imagined being followed by government agencies and their armed drones. He pictured being gunned down by one or the other side. When he relieved himself before getting into a car, he thought, "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."

El Chapo Was A Nice Host

The encounter was also the first time the kingpin had met del Castillo in person and it became clear to Penn that he has his guards put away their heavy artillery for her benefit. (After she goes to bed, they all put on their big guns again.) After greeting del Castillo "like a daughter returning home from college," Guzman turned to Penn "with a hospitable smile, putting out his outstretched hand. I take it. He pulls me into a 'compadre' hug, looks me in the eyes and speaks a lengthy greeting in Spanish too fast for my ears." He treated his guests to dinner and tequila. They chatted until 4 a.m., during which Penn was not taking notes or recording anything. He did manage to recall some good quotes, however, such as the boast that, "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 also called Donald Trump "mi amigo."

About That Interview

Even after all that effort, however, El Chapo put off the formal interview, saying he'll meet with Penn and a photographer in eight days. They said good night. "At this moment, I expel a minor traveler's flatulence (sorry)," Penn writes, and his gracious host pretends not to notice. Penn and company were rushed out of their bungalow just a couple of hours later, because an impending storm would make travel impossible. Back at home, Penn learned that after the weather cleared, the military and the DEA moved in on Sinaloa and El Chapo was injured in a siege, but escaped. Penn tried to devise a way to get back to El Chapo, even considering hiding in a friend's trunk for the drive across the border, before finally conceding to conduct the interview remotely. Del Castillo arranged for questions to be sent via BBM, and after much back and forth, Guzman recorded his answers on video.
The interview itself does not reveal much new information about El Chapo. Guzman tells of his poor upbringing and how dealing drugs was the only way to provide his family with food. He is unapologetic about the drug trade, arguing that it would exist without him. Of the surrounding violence? "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."

The Aftermath

Guzman was recaptured in Sinaloa on Friday and is back in the very prison from which he escaped. According to CNN, it is not clear whether Penn's interview lead authorities to him. Authorities did, however, say they had traced the fugitive through communications with filmmakers. The New York Times reports that Mexican authorities said all the actors and producers who had met with Guzman are now under investigation.

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