Actor and activist Sean Penn turned gonzo journalist and got an interview with the world’s most wanted man, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, just after the Mexican drug baron escaped from a maximum-security prison, it has emerged.
At his hideouts in the impenetrable hills of western Mexico, Guzmán told the Hollywood star about his drugs business, rags-to-riches life story and how he hired European engineers to help him to slip out of the prison.
Mexican authorities claim they monitored Penn’s movements after they found out about his meeting with Guzmán in October and that helped lead them to a ranch where El Chapo was staying.
Guzmán, fresh from his escape through anexpertly engineered tunnel, told Penn in a seven-hour visit and follow-up video for an article published in Rolling Stone: “I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world … I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats.”
It’s an incredible accumulation of weaponry and wealth for a man who identified himself as a farmer in the last interview he gave more than two decades ago. He told Penn, who says he made contact with the drug lord through the Mexican actor Kate del Castillo, that he had not done drugs in 20 years and that: “I don’t want to be portrayed as a nun.”
Navy marines found Guzmán on Friday at a no-tell motel in the tomato-growing town of Los Mochis – from which he attempted to escape, appropriately enough, through a tunnel. In the end, it appears El Chapo’s Hollywood ambitions cost him.
Mexican officials marched him in front of the media on Friday night at the Mexico City airport, where the attorney general, Arely Gómez, said El Chapo had wanted to make a biopic and reached out to actors and producers. Gómez also said investigators gathered information about potential participants in the film meeting with lawyers representing El Chapo. She did not mention any actors by name, but Penn is the only person to reveal contact with El Chapo.
In his Rolling Stone story, Penn says he got in touch with Guzmán via Del Castillo, star of the narco-themed soap series La Reina del Sur, who made public statements against the Mexican government in 2012, saying: “Today I believe more in Chapo Guzmán than in the governments that hide the truth, even if it’s painful.” She added: “Mr Chapo, wouldn’t it be cool if you started trafficking in love?”
After he was imprisoned Guzmán contacted Del Castillo through his lawyers. At the time Hollywood producers were peppering him with offers to portray his life story. They agreed to produce a film and traded messages via BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) after his escape in July 2015.
Del Castillo accompanied Penn on his trip to interview El Chapo and served as a translator. Penn recalls arriving at El Chapo’s lair, where, “[Guzmán] opens Kate’s door and greets her like a daughter returning from college.”
Penn mentions divisive presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, whose head Guzman reputedly put a $100m bounty on over anti-Latino comments. “Ah! Mi amigo!” Guzmán responds.
In July 2015 Guzmán escaped the Altiplano prison near Mexico City by squeezing through a hole in his cell’s shower area and into a tunnel nearly a mile long. To build the tunnel he flew in German engineers, who advised his workers on how to address a problem of low-lying water under the prison.
After slipping away, federal forces nearly killed him in the Sierra Madre mountains, where he was hiding out. He escaped with only a leg injury, according to details later provided to the media by the Mexican government.
Guzmán recounted the close call in a BBM to Del Castillo: “Two helicopters and 6 BlackHawks began a confrontation upon their arrival. The marines dispersed throughout the farms. The families had to escape and abandon their homes with the fear of being killed.
“We still don’t know how many dead in total.”
Guzmán sent many men to early graves. His attempts to seize the coveted cocaine-trafficking corridor through Ciudad Juárez from the incumbent Juárez cartel turned the border town into the murder capital of the world.
Guzmán appears sanguine about his past, saying: “Well, it’s a reality that drugs destroy.
“Unfortunately, as I said, where I grew up there was no other way and there still isn’t a way to survive.”
Penn often expresses admiration for Guzmán and his exploits, referring to him as a Robin Hood figure in Sinaloa state, showering locals with services. Government statistics still show his home municipality of Badiraguato as one of the poorest in country.
The actor strikes an apologetic tone at times, writing: “I take no pride in keeping secrets that may be perceived as protecting criminals.”
But he also appears anxious to play up perceived virtues. “I took some comfort in a unique aspect of El Chapo’s reputation among the heads of drug cartels in Mexico: that, unlike many of his counterparts who engage in gratuitous kidnapping and murder, El Chapo is a businessman first, and only resorts to violence when he deems it advantageous to himself or his business interests,” Penn writes.
Rolling Stone said it submitted the story to Guzmán for his approval, and he allowed it to run as written.
Guzmán re-entered the Altiplano prison – guarded by tanks – on Friday night. On Saturday, the Mexican government said it started processing extradition orders against Guzmán brought by the US government on drug, murder and money laundering charges.
The attorney general’s office said in a statement: “With the capture of Guzmán Loera it should start the respective extradition proceedings.”
The office added that two federal judges had issued orders for his apprehension and extradition and that Guzmán had 20 days to present evidence in his defense. His lawyers have said they would seek injunctions against extradition – a process that could keep Guzmán in Mexico longer than many in the government might want.
The prospect of extradition has spooked Guzmán previously. He once escaped from the Puente Grande prison in Guadalajara by being wheeled out of the front door in a laundry cart. Press reports said he had run his cartel from the prison, threw parties and ordered in sex workers, but made his escape as extradition proceedings advanced to an uncomfortable point.
The Mexican government opted against extraditing him after his February 2014 arrest. The then attorney general, Jesús Murillo Karam, infamously said Guzmán would eventually arrive in the US – after serving his sentence in Mexico “[in] about 300, 400 years”.