El Chapo, Penn and del Castillo. El Chapo, Penn and del Castillo.

Penn’s interview: what there was to learn

That he is no journalist, but can tell a good story

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.

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  • James Smith

    Penn is a traitor to the US for he has made a career of “giving aid and comfort to the enemy”, i.e., enemy nations of the US including the governments of Cuba, Venezuela and others. This latest attempt to circumvent the laws of both Mexico and the US is just proof of his criminal ventures.

  • Herradura Plata

    Surely we can forgive Montaigne his indulgences; his positive contribution to Western literature and intellectual thought in fact demand it. Not so for Mr. Penn, whose performance in this episode will be remembered, in future appraisals by cultural historians, for its self-focused, photo-op, Hollywoodesque banality.

  • Jason Habacht

    As a moron and an obnoxious fool….Penn is a roaring success, but as a writer….not so much.

  • Güerito

    And now this:

  • James Smith

    “The subject of a future article. Until then.” Judging from the content of previous opinion pieces posted to this site by the author, one may be forgiven for treating his last sentence as more of a threat than a promise.

    • Herradura Plata

      James, have you ever written a 1500-word essay off the top of your head? Seems highly unlikely. Ditto that other knuckle-dragging, Trump-humper — Solitary Man — whose tired one-liners you neatly plagiarize.
      Weeagerly await your first “opinion” piece on these pages. Remember a good essay writer connects his ideas (should they occur in the first place) andnever, never quotes Archie Digests as sources.

      • James Smith

        I have written many essays. The difference? I don’t submit them to radical left publications.

  • Beverley Wood

    He also didn’t get his interview – which was supposed to happen eight days later. Yet you insist on calling it an interview. This was a first person account of a ‘get to know you’ meeting. I loved reading it, it’s too bad that there weren’t another 70,000 words, it could have been a great book. And it took a great deal of courage to travel to the middle of the jungle to meet with the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, no? But ah, you are a professor, I see, safe in your ivory halls.

    • Glen Olives

      Why so hostile, Beverly? Unlike other reviewers of Sean’s piece, I never questioned his courage or maligned his story telling ability. Having had my own limited courage tested as a US Army soldier from 1987 to 1991 it seems somewhat unfair to imply that I now mete out my critiques from ivory halls. From where else am I to do it? As for the Rolling Stone article, I suspect that after El Chapo’s capture it was rushed to print without proper editorial supervision and input. This no doubt has contributed in the short term to an increase in magazine sales and page views, but at the cost of credibility as a source of journalism that cannot be measured. You’re right, Penn didn’t get the second taped interview he was expecting eight days later. If he had, we might have expected something more substantive to come from extended follow-up questions. We’ll never know what might have been. But we do know that a seasoned journalist (let’s say John Krakauer) would have had the common sense and foresight to at least bring a pen and paper to the first meeting to memorialize the conversation.

      • Beverley Wood

        Why so critical, Glen? Have you had a look at some of the headlines this publication uses to click-bait readers? And you may have been a US Army solider, but I can tell you’ve never been in a room with the leader of a cartel. Whipping out a pen and paper on the first meeting is not done. But I should apologize for you bearing the brunt of my hostility. I’m appalled at the state of journalism today. And happen to think Penn’s story is a better example of journalism than 90% of the publications out there, who steal from those who actually do report and then present it as their own (including this one). And for reference, I have worked closely with some of the top reporters and writers on the continent, having had the pleasure to work at one of the top news magazines for over a dozen years (in the days when reporting was valued).

        • Glen Olives

          I suspect that we may agree on substantive issues more than we disagree. I too lament the fact that the days of real investigative journalism may be behind us. But I must disagree that MND is a click-bait website. (Disclosure: I am a frequent contributor, but not paid, not even a t-shirt.) As for the Penn article, I wouldn’t want to intimate that Sean could have taken copious notes while conversing with Guzmán. But any notes, even written on the back of a cereal box with a crayon after retiring for the night, would have been better than a regurgitation of tequila-enhanced memories of a noche grande with a drug lord. Let us be clear: Sean’s article was about Sean and not about Guzmán. Having said that, there is definitely a place for gonzo journalism, and had Hunter S. Thompson (no relation) been given the extraordinary luck of meeting El Chapo, we would no doubt have been enlightened. As it were, that luck fell to Sean Penn. For me, I’ve met drug lords, and have seen murder up close and personal. I haven’t written about it because there isn’t much to say that isn’t already known.

          • Beverley Wood

            I’m still stuck on the fact that you write for free. Anyhow, nice talking to you. It’s been socially interesting for me to view the rest of the comments also, they give me a strong indication of who reads this website. And just to touch on that, they aren’t as overtly click-bait as some, but often misrepresent the point of the story to get clicks (they make money from all those google ads). And I don’t like it much when people regurgitate others’ hard reporting and call it proprietary news (not referring to your story here, which was clearly opinion) . Even worse that writers do it for free. I am curious how you met an actual drug lord, but I’ve taken up too much of your time already. And mine. Hasta luego and buena suerte.

          • Tony

            Beverley, we make no claims that the news we publish is our own. You will find no copyright warnings on our site either. Yes, I suppose you could say we regurgitate others’ reporting but it is reporting that for the most part our readers would never see if we did not rewrite it from the Spanish sources. And we always give credit and a link back. As for making money, @glenolives:disqus would have his t-shirt by now if we could afford to print them.

          • Beverley Wood

            “Yes, I suppose you could say we regurgitate others’ reporting but it is
            reporting that for the most part our readers would never see if we did
            not” – and I guess that absolves you! Adios.

  • Hailey Mannering

    Any financial gains from Sean Penn´s meeting with Guzman should of course go to some of Guzman´s victims. Not that it could begin to compensate for the terrible tragedies so many have endured. Guzman is a good family man ? Most of them should be in prison for harboring a fugitive. I wonder how long it would take to barbeque them ? Just wondering…

  • Phaedrus Shakespearos

    Shauna Penn…He lives in Hollywood, likes to be seen mingling with the stars. I heard that most of Hollywood was behind ‘Operation Take El Chapo Down’. Starmap dot com