Hollywood actor Sean Penn has criticized audiences for failing to understand his ‘experiential journalism’. Last week, Rolling Stone magazine published the actor’s exclusive 10,000-word account of his notorious meeting with the then-fugitive Sinaloa cartel boss, Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, drawing heated criticism of his method and message.
Written in the first-person and published on 10 January, Penn’s article chronicles his rambling journey into the jungle-shrouded Sierra Madre Mountains, where he drinks tequila and eats tacos with the legendary capo. Between flights on private jets and furtive meetings in luxury hotels, Penn intersperses his alternately macho and self-deprecating narrative with personal reflections on the war on drugs. Fans applauded the piece as quintessential gonzo journalism.
“I thought this was excellent,” commented Edy Kubiak. “Much better than the watered down generic dribble we get served up from the mindless media day after day.”
“Loved the article and have a new respect for Mr. Penn,” said twistedneck.
“Great writer, killer voice.”
Pointing to Penn’s defective writing style, critics were less enthused. One of his most pointed detractors appears to have been El Chapo himself, who apparently submitted extensive line edits to the piece.
“Sean,” he said, marking Penn’s opening paragraphs with red lines. “You are a great writer, killer voice. However, I think all this opening stuff has to go. Don’t you think your readers would be more interested in where I show up? I’m cutting this first section that is about you, for your own sake. Please don’t argue with me.”
The capo goes on to correct the actor about the details of one his jailbreaks, claiming he killed 20 armed guards using parts of a laundry cart (“I would never ride in a laundry cart covered by sheets”). He then peppers Penn’s best efforts with exasperated comments that show remarkable editorial nous for a humble campesino-turned-global-drug-baron:
“Unclear… I’ve just had my translator beaten, but even afterwards I still feel there is a better way to phrase this… sloppy and imprecise… confused about your tone… the first-person adds nothing here, amigo… better to paraphrase?… reword?… A little jargony… can you provide context clues… lazy wording…”
At the point where Penn compares Guzmán to Tony Montana in ‘Scarface’, El Chapo loses his cool:
“This is how you choose to make your longest uninterrupted attempt to capture who I am? With a cheap movie comparison? I don’t wish to mince words; I am a man accustomed to indulgence, but this is going a little too far even for me. I don’t see at all how a spastic Al Pacino character illustrates the kind of control you saw me exert with only the slightest of gestures and speech. And you had the real thing in front of you for two days!—more than any stranger has laid eyes on me since I ordered my first beheading. I am starting to doubt whether you got me at all. I am starting to think we should kill this piece. Just the piece.”
The self-incriminating edits, which are probably satirical, were published by the website Slate. It claims that El Chapo “relinquished his [editorial] demands only after Penn promised to introduce him to Oscar Isaac…”
Penn’s foray into the Mexican underworld began last October 2015 and was facilitated by actor Kate del Castillo, the leading star of the narco-themed Telenovela, ‘La Reina del Sur’. Based on a novel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, the series chronicles the rise of Teresa Mendoza, a 23-year old Mexican woman who becomes the most powerful drug trafficker in southern Spain. The actor’s real life contact with the Sinaloa cartel began in January 2012 when she publicly tweeted El Chapo:
“Mr. Chapo, wouldn’t it be cool that you started trafficking with love? With cures for diseases, with food for the homeless children, with alcohol for the retirement homes that don’t let the elderly spend the rest of the days doing whatever the fuck they want. Imagine trafficking with corrupt politicians instead of women and children who end up as slaves. Why don’t you burn all those whorehouses where women are worth less than a pack of cigarettes. Without offer, there’s no demand. Come on, Don! You would be the hero of heroes. Let’s traffic with love. You know how to. Life is a business and the only thing that changes is the merchandise. Don’t you agree?”
El Chapo, apparently smitten, sent the actor flowers. Thus began a personal and professional flirtation that superficially revolved around Guzmán’s ambition to make a film. In February 2014, after El Chapo had been incarcerated in Altiplano prison in Mexico, a cavalcade of Hollywood executives – seeing the potential for a crime biopic along the lines of ‘Blow’ or ‘Escobar’ – began courting him with proposals. In October 2014, he approached Del Castillo for advice.
“It’s obvious that El Chapo has a crush on Kate del Castillo… [he] justified it to his wife by claiming Kate was the ideal person to play his mother in the movie.”
In July 2015, plans for the Hollywood treatment were postponed when, much to the embarrassment of the Peña Nieto administration, El Chapo made an audacious jailbreak. After bribing prison staff to ignore the sound of chronic hammering under his prison cell shower, he escaped through an underground tunnel on a modified motorbike, reportedly smashing light bulbs with a stick as he went.
The drug lord then fled to a mountain enclave where he was to later meet Sean Penn. According to the Mexican newspaper Milenio (which is presumed to have received leaked interceptions from Mexican security forces), Guzmán and Del Castillo exchanged cozy text messages in the run-up to the meeting.
“Time to talk,”
“How beautiful you are, amiga, in all aspects,” wrote Guzmán, one week before the encounter.
“I confess that I feel protected for the first time,” replied Del Castillo. “You will know my story when we have the time to talk, but for some reason I feel safe and know that you know who I am, not as an actress or a public person.”
Penn’s meeting was secured on the guarantee that El Chapo would be permitted to see the article before publication and, contrary to standard practice, modify it or reject it as he wished (according to Penn, Guzmán accepted the final piece unabridged).
Accompanied by Del Castillo, who acted as a translator, Penn travelled to Guadalajara (where he was surveilled by Mexican security forces) and boarded a private jet bound for an undisclosed airstrip. Upon landing, he was ushered into an armoured SUV. Seven hours later, after a bumpy ride on obscure dirt roads, they arrived at El Chapo’s hideout.
In the story’s most compelling scene, the actor spent the evening drinking with the drug lord and convincing him to participate in a two day interview at a future date. It was never to happen. Shortly after Penn’s visit, Guzmán’s jungle hideaway was raided, forcing him to relocate. A series of written questions were subsequently relayed to Guzmán by Penn, which he answered with a low quality video apparently shot on a cell phone.
By that time, El Chapo’s days were numbered. On 8 January 2016, security forces zeroed in on his residential lodging in the city of Los Mochis, a gun battle ensued, and five of his bodyguards were killed. The drug lord himself escaped to freedom by crawling through sewer tunnels. Travelling north the next day, however, he was apprehended by highway police, who removed him to a discreet sex motel until reinforcements arrived. The rest is history: El Chapo is now in jail (until his next breakout) and awaiting extradition to the U.S.
Penn’s article was published in the wake of El Chapo’s capture, inviting substantial trolling as well as professional scrutiny from journalists. Beyond the vociferous accusations of ‘purple prose’ and ‘Hunter S. Thompson FAIL’, there were serious and well-argued criticisms, including lucid observations from InSight Crime, a foundation dedicated to the investigation and analysis of organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean.
“Penn is so wrapped up in his starring role as “journalist” that he forgets that he does not really represent any of us, much less our profession,” wrote Steven Dudley. “Ego is what drives this story, not journalism.”
Outlining five reasons why Sean Penn failed, Dudley argues that the actor misrepresents himself as a journalist when “his real interest appears to be in scooping Hollywood, who would undoubtedly pursue Chapo projects.” Penn, says Dudley, confuses courage with ego by using fear – for example, the gratuitous fear of having his genitals cut off – as a facade to imply his own bravery.
“If he were a Mexican journalist,” wrote Dudley, “these fears would be rational. Mexican journalists are threatened, killed and run from their homes routinely… But he is Sean Penn. He is a rock star, not some small town Mexican journalist messing with the narcos’ agenda. He is the agenda… for however arrogant Chapo is, Penn is his equal. Like a typical Hollywood movie, it is the gringo who is at the center of a story ostensibly about the suffering of others.”
According to Dudley, Penn fawns over El Chapo’s power – his vehicles, weapons, his hundreds of henchmen – while painting the portrait of a “simple, yet charismatic man”. He never mentions any of his crimes, which include the murders of thousands of people.
“The subtext of Penn’s narrative is that there are victims who are simply taking advantage of ‘our insatiable appetite for illicit narcotics.”
“Chapo is one of these victims.”
Last Sunday 17 January, Penn appeared on CBS ‘60 minutes’ to defend his work, telling Charlie Rose he had wanted to contribute to the debate on the ‘policy of the war on drugs’ and has a ‘terrible regret’ that he himself became the story.
“We all want this drug problem to stop. And if you are in the moral right, or on the far left, just as many of your children are doing these drugs, just as many of your brothers and sisters, your mothers and fathers, the teachers at school, are doing these drugs. Just as many. And how much time have they spent in the last week since this article come out, talking about that? One percent? I think that’d be generous… My article failed.”
“But you’re really saying,” interjected Rose.
“What I really regret is not anything that I did. I regret that people misunderstood what I did.”
Penn may have wanted to contribute to the debate, but his decision to cast himself center-stage under the guise of ‘experiential journalism’ means we are left not with an important or insightful story, not with a story that advances new information, but with a juicy, gossipy story: the story of a fading fugitive drug lord with an ill-fated crush on a Telenovela star, and an egotistical Hollywood actor who travelled to Mexico to talk to him.