What did we learn from Sean Penn’s interview with Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán before he was captured? Nothing.
Well, almost nothing. We learned that Penn, a talented Hollywood actor, director and writer, is no journalist.
Criticisms of his journalistic integrity aside, he can tell a good story, and I recommend reading the Rolling Stone piece for no other reason than it’s a cloak and dagger thriller with a beginning, middle, and end – fraught with tension and even some comic relief.
(After a long night drinking tequila in their first and only encounter Penn farts loudly but El Chapo, who Penn inexplicably seems to want to sculpt into a country gentleman, pretends not to notice.)
We also learn that without the help of Mexican actress Kate del Castillo, and Penn’s sometimes interpreter and fixer “Espinoza,” the meeting with Guzmán would have been impossible. Penn refers to Espinoza as “the owl who flies among falcons,” whatever that means.
Indeed, his use of metaphor throughout the piece is stilted and often unintelligible, but then again the editorial standards at Rolling Stone are apparently not those of, say, Vanity Fair.
Be that as it may, the article begins with an obscure and irrelevant quote from Montaigne.
Contrary to what high school English teachers tend to hold dear, a piece of expository writing is seldom helped by a quote from an esoteric French philosopher, even a self-indulgent one, but then again, both Penn’s and Montaigne’s written works seem to be more about them than their subjects, which is perhaps why Penn chose to open with a Montaigne aphorism.
Penn then details his bumbling with the technology necessary to keep his communications with El Chapo’s people secret, describing the process as “a clandestine horror show for the single most technologically illiterate man left standing.” He admits that he’s never learned to use a laptop.
Joaquín Guzmán Loera doesn’t seem to fare much better with technology. Penn laments that although El Chapo might be a “street genius” he is at heart “a humble, rural Mexican” and seems to have trouble filming an interview shot on a cell phone.
Despite El Chapo’s gaggle of handlers, bodyguards, lawyers and other acolytes, nobody can speak English, so the interview is produced in Spanish with English subtitles. Guzmán appears stiff and uncomfortable, and answers questions in short declarative sentences, often inarticulately.
He seems largely unaware of his notoriety outside Mexico, espouses no theory on drug policy, posits no moral philosophy of his own, and when asked if he could change the world, merely replies, “For me, the way things are, I’m happy.”
Much of the rest of the interview consists of banalities like he loves his mother and has a good relationship with his siblings.
Guzmán’s story is all too familiar. Growing up poor in the mountainous rural hinterlands of Sinaloa with no prospect of gainful licit employment, selling poppy and marijuana was seen as the only alternative to a life of monetary deprivation.
Through determination and ruthless brutality he became a fugitive billionaire, twice imprisoned, twice escaped, and twice captured. El Chapo makes the obvious and rather pedestrian observation that if he is captured once again (he shortly thereafter was), nothing will change with regard to drug trafficking.
His fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats will continue to operate, as will his money laundering partnerships with major corporations, as will his cartel’s implicit cooperation with local law enforcement, as will his folk hero status among the region’s poor, as will the demand for drugs north of the border. Who would have thought?
Later this week I’ll be attending a conference on business innovation and exponential technologies hosted by a Fellow from the Rock Center of Corporate Governance at Stanford University. There are sure to be flowcharts, marketing plans, Power Point presentations and Excel worksheets on everything even tangentially related to entrepreneurship and business management.
El Chapo’s organization doesn’t need it, nor do the competing cartels. The worldwide untaxed, unregulated black market drug trade is a US $300 billion a year industry. No marketing experts, no corporate compliance officers, and no tax accountants need apply.
It’s all about guns, violence and intimidation, with a touch of logistics, but not even much of that. Depending on the drug, as little as 10% and a maximum of 30% of drug shipments are intercepted. Even the wrong-about-everything-else economist Milton Friedman admitted that the illegal drug market is not price sensitive, and to the extent that interdiction efforts raise drug prices, drug cartels are the ultimate beneficiaries in increased profits.
In his magazine piece, Penn goes on to lament the fatuous hopelessness of the War on Drugs – the needless violence, the wasted lives of the murdered and imprisoned, the Sisyphean task of keeping people from the instinct to alter their consciousness.
But this too, is nothing new: it has become a quotidian criticism of those who have been seriously studying the issue for at least two decades. Every economist, pharmacologist, sociologist, public policy expert and academic not associated with the drug war industry says the same thing.
“El Chapo Speaks” is an interesting escapist read, with the best parts being anecdotes about Penn’s journey deep into Mexico on small planes and narco convoys. (When stopped at a military checkpoint, Guzmán’s son Alfredo rolled down his window to show his face, whereon the soldiers stepped back and waved them on.)
But as investigative journalism goes, perilous adventures don’t necessarily produce anything newsworthy.
The serious policy issues facing Mexico – namely the ongoing drug war and its corollary of endemic political corruption – will be addressed this coming April at the Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS).
The subject of a future article. Until then.
Glen Olives Thompson is a professor of North American Law at La Salle University in Chihuahua, a specialist in law and public policy and a regular contributor to Mexico News Daily. Some of his other work can be viewed at glenolives.com.