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Arts and Entertainment

Kate del Castillo Calls BS On Sean Penn's Tale Of Meeting Drug Lord 'El Chapo'

Kate del Castillo (Frazer Harrison/ Getty Images)
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When El Chapo was captured in January after six months on the lam, authorities said they were tipped off by the Mexican drug lord's communication with actors and producers, who were in talks to produce a biopic based on his life. And thus entered Mexican actress Kate del Castillo into the twisted saga of El Chapo. While fairly unknown to most American audiences, she's famous for her role as a drug kingpin on the Mexican soap La Reina del Sur. You also might recognize her from her role as the shady politician on Weeds who gets killed with a croquet mallet.

The New Yorker profiled del Castillo at length, and got the dirt on how El Chapo went about contacting her, the behind-the-scenes details on the bizarre Rolling Stone interview conducted by Sean Penn, and the dicey legal repercussions of her involvement.

The piece opens:

On the evening of January 9, 2012, the Mexican actress Kate del Castillo poured a glass of wine, sat down at her computer, and opened Twitter.
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Stars—they're just like us! Except in this case, these particular tweets attracted the attention and admiration of the most powerful drug kingpin on the planet.

Del Castillo wrote, "Today I believe more in El Chapo Guzmán than I do in the governments that hide truths from me, even if they are painful, who hide the cures for cancer, AIDS, etc., for their own benefit. MR. CHAPO, WOULDN'T IT BE COOL IF YOU STARTED TRAFFICKING WITH THE GOOD? . . . COME ON SEÑOR, YOU WOULD BE THE HERO OF HEROES. LET'S TRAFFIC WITH LOVE, YOU KNOW HOW." She signed off, "I love you all, Kate," pressed Send, brushed her teeth, and went to bed.

El Chapo himself, then locked up in (apparently not-so) maximum-security prison at Altiplano set out to get in touch with del Castillo. He found del Castillo's parents' phone number through the Mexican actor's guild, and started sending her vague inquiries. After brushing him off, El Chapo's lawyer told her that his client wanted to produce a biopic of his own life, and asked her to come to Mexico City to talk about it. So she did.

On September 29th, del Castillo took a private plane from Miami to an airstrip near Mexico City. Before boarding, she photographed the plane’s tail number and sent it to a friend with instructions to trace the plane if she did not hear from del Castillo that evening. As she emerged from immigration, two men in suits smiled in recognition. One was Granados, who had a youthful appearance, with a wide face and close-cropped hair. Accompanying him was another lawyer, named Óscar Manuel Gómez Núñez, who was short and chubby, with a mustache. El Chapo, they said, had instructed them to take her to dinner at one of the nicest restaurants in Mexico City. Fearing possible encounters with the paparazzi, del Castillo suggested that they go to a nearby taquería instead. “Señorita, if he knows we’ve taken you to get tacos, he’ll kill us,” she recalls one of them saying. When she blanched, they laughed and assured her that they were joking. They settled on a restaurant by the highway, where they ate at a secluded table. The attorneys told del Castillo that, while El Chapo had received numerous offers from Hollywood producers, he trusted del Castillo and wanted to give her the rights to his life story.

Ha, ha! "He'll kill us!" Ha, ha! Hilarious.

Del Castillo debated between telling El Chapo's story via a documentary, or a movie. As for Chapo? His preference was for "a big movie." She kept the plans for the potential film to herself, with one exception, when she told Argentinian producer Fernando Sulichin, who introduced her to another Argentinian filmmaker, José Ibáñez. Del Castillo told El Chapo's lawyers that the ball was sort-of rolling, at least in terms of interest from other parties. In January 2015, Chapo signed over the rights to his story to del Castillo for a project that would be co-produced by Ibáñez and Sulichin.

A notary at the Altiplano prison witnessed his signature. Around the same time, he wrote her a second letter, in which he described his Christmas meal (turkey and Coca-Cola) and also his New Year’s Eve dinner (pork and Coca-Cola). He wrote, "I tell you, that series that you made, I saw it and I loved it. I’ve seen it many times—you’re a great actress in it. I’m referring to La Reina del Sur."

After El Chapo escaped from prison in July of last year, Sean Penn asked his friend, Sulichin, to set him up with a meeting with del Castillo, because he thought she could help him get to Chapo. So, she made moves to get an in-person meeting for the both of them: traveling to Guadalajara and contacting El Chapo's lawyers, who then put her in direct contact with the imprisoned drug lord via BlackBerry.

Then he wrote, “Amiga, if you’ll bring the wine, I’ll also drink yours. . . . I’m not a drinker, but your presence will be a lovely thing and I very much want to get to know you and become very good friends. You are the best in this world. . . . I will take care of you more than I do my own eyes.” Del Castillo replied, “It moves me so much that you say you’ll take care of me—nobody has ever taken care of me, thank you! And I’ll be free next weekend!”

Del Castillo then left to join her friends, while the lawyers stayed on the BlackBerry to tell El Chapo that she was planning to bring along the two producers as well as Sean Penn, “one of the most famous actors in Hollywood.” El Chapo had never heard of Penn. Gómez then explained that “he made the film ‘21 Grams’ ” and was a “political activist” who had been a critic of the Bush Administration. El Chapo did not object.

Penn gave del Castillo his passport information, and del Castillo booked a charter flight to Guadalajara. The cost for the flight: a cool $33,720.37. According to del Castillo, Penn partially reimbursed her "though their memories differ on the amount." Del Castillo packed el Chapo a little care package.
It included a novel she had written, called “Tuya” (a fictionalized account of her first marriage), a book of poetry by Jaime Sabines Gutiérrez (with her personal favorites underlined), a bottle of her tequila, and two movies on DVD: “Under the Same Moon,” in which she starred, and Penn’s “21 Grams.” Penn was carrying a letter of assignment from Wenner, saying that Penn, Sulichin, and Ibáñez would be the story’s authors. (Del Castillo says that she did not know about the letter.) On the plane, Penn read “ZeroZeroZero,” the Mafia narco-trafficking best-seller, by the Italian journalist Roberto Saviano.

The article goes in great detail about the lead-up to the infamous Rolling Stone interview; del Castillo and Penn drank tequila on the tiny plane to the tiny town in Sinaloa to "steady themselves" for the meeting. Once they got to a run-down building, they were greeted by El Chapo and drank more tequila and ate tacos (typical night in L.A. really). But according to del Castillo, she was blindsided when Penn told El Chapo that he was there to do a story for Rolling Stone.

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Del Castillo says that Penn’s claim that he told her about his idea for an article at their first meeting is “total and complete bullshit,” and that his mention of the story to El Chapo was the first she had heard of it. “This was not how I was expecting the night to be,” she told me. “But at the moment I thought, Maybe we can base the movie on this article.”

Despite del Castillo's claim, Penn said in a statement to the New Yorker: "Kate was a valued partner in our journey, which was embarked upon with total transparency and full knowledge of our collective interests. From our first meeting, I discussed with her my intention to interview Joaquín Guzmán for an article in connection with the meeting that she facilitated. We discussed it again during the flight and the trip to Mexico with our partners."

As the night went on, del Castillo began to feel tense, and scared (and you really can't blame her after reading this passage):

Throughout, El Chapo was solicitous of del Castillo—pulling out her chair for her, pouring her tequila, asking why she was not eating. “Amiga, I think you have to go to sleep,” he said, eventually. He stood, telling the others that he was going to escort del Castillo to her bedroom. As he led her down a corridor, he held her elbow. They stopped in a doorway to a room filled with several beds—one of them, presumably hers, behind a screen. She believed, she said, that El Chapo might assault her: “So I say, ‘What the fuck, I might as well say my last words.’ I told him, ‘Amigo, you know why I’m here. And you know what I wrote about you. You’re a very powerful man. And you can do a lot of good. There’s a good man inside of you. So let’s do it.’ ”

“You know what, amiga?” she recalls him replying. “You have a big heart.”

He gestured to the bed behind the screen. “This is where you’ll sleep,” he told her. “You’re not going to see me after this, because I don’t sleep where my guests are. It’s for their security.” He added, “Thanks for giving me one of the best days of my life.”

Del Castillo also called out inaccuracies in Penn's Rolling Stone story, like the description of going through a military-style checkpoint to get to Chapo, which she said straight up didn't happen.

Then, when it was announced Chapo had been captured thanks to his communication with actresses and producers, del Castillo said, "I wanted to die."

Now, del Castillo could be facing some severe legal repercussions. Mexico's Attorney General announced they were to be investigating del Castillo for money laundering, citing her tequila business the movie project as "potential areas of financial collusion with the drug trafficker." Del Castillo has vigorously denied these claims, but the definition of money laundering in Mexico is apparently so broad, according to one of del Castillo's lawyers "that anyone can be found guilty under that definition. As an actual example, she used the planes of El Chapo to go to their meeting."

So for now, del Castillo is holed up in her house in Brentwood; in the two weeks following the Rolling Stone interview, she only ventured out of her home once, "to the Mexican restaurant El Coyote, on Beverly Boulevard," where "she was confronted in the parking lot by a cameraman from TMZ."

Del Castillo also calls out the sexism in the media's treatment of her, as compared to that of Sean Penn, and believes that the way she's been characterized has fueled the government's investigation (she's the only one involved in the interview to be investigated).

Del Castillo regards the Mexican government’s investigation of her as “a witch hunt.” She sees elements of sexism in the media’s depiction of her: “They always mention my age. They don’t talk about Sean’s age, or him being in love with or admiring El Chapo.” Though she clearly wants to avoid making enemies in Hollywood, she worries that Penn, Sulichin, and Ibáñez might have somehow left her exposed when they did not insist on including her as a journalist on assignment in the letter that Jann Wenner gave to Penn.

Dang. Forget an El Chapo biopic. I'd like to see one about del Castillo.

[h/t The New Yorker]