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Sean Penn Secretly Met And Interviewed El Chapo For Rolling Stone

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In yet another twist in the saga of "El Chapo," it turns out that two-time Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn had met with Mexican drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera in October, a few months after his elaborate escape from prison. And Penn interviewed him for Rolling Stone, relying on private charter planes, burner phones, "mirroring through Blackphones, anonymous e-mail addresses, unsent messages accessed in draft form." As he explained it, "The trust that El Chapo had extended to us was not to be fucked with."

After meeting in person for seven hours, Guzman sent a video answering some of Penn's questions, like whether he thinks his drug trafficking is responsible for "the high level of drug addiction in the world," to which El Chapo replied, "No, that is false, because the day I don't exist, it's not going to decrease in any way at all. Drug trafficking? That's false." And when asked who should be blamed—those who sell drugs or those who use them—he responded, "If there was no consumption, there would be no sales. It is true that consumption, day after day, becomes bigger and bigger. So it sells and sells."

Guzman escaped—for a second time—from a maximum security prison in July, relying on a million-dollar tunnel system that had lighting, a motorcycle and ventilation. He was nearly captured in mid-October, but eluded the authorities—until Friday.

You could read Penn's feature (and you should!) but here are some tl;dr details. The NY Times reports:

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The interviews were held in a jungle clearing atop a mountain at an undisclosed location in Mexico. Surrounded by more than 100 cartel troops, and wearing a silk shirt and pressed black jeans, Mr. Guzmán sat down to dinner with Mr. Penn and Kate del Castillo, a Mexican actress who once played a drug kingpin in the soap opera “La Reina del Sur,” according to Rolling Stone. Even though Mexican troops attacked his hide-out in the days after the meeting, necessitating a narrow escape, Mr. Guzmán continued the interview by BlackBerry Messenger and in a video delivered by courier to the pair later.

The story provides new details on his dramatic escape from prison last summer, when he disappeared through a hole in his shower into a mile-long tunnel that some engineers estimated took more than a year and at least $1 million to build. The engineers, Mr. Penn wrote, had been flown to Germany for specialized training. A motorcycle on rails inside the tunnel had been modified to run in the low-oxygen environment, deep underground.

The long, rambling feature got it start when Penn connected with del Castillo, who won El Chapo's admiration after she posted a Tweet sympathetic to him in 2012. Guzman's desire to produce a movie about his own life—which apparently became his undoing—prompted him to talk to del Castillo and others in the film business. However, given the restrictive access to El Chapo, the film idea was abandoned. Penn writes:
Then came July 2015. El Chapo's prison break. The world, and particularly Mexico and the United States, was up in arms. How could this happen?! The DEA and the Justice Department were furious. The fact that Mexican Interior Secretary Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong had refused El Chapo's extradition to the United States, then allowed his escape, positioned Chong and the Peña Nieto administration as global pariahs. I followed the news of El Chapo's escape and reached out to Espinoza. We met in the courtyard of a boutique hotel in Paris in late August. He told me about Kate and that she had been intermittently receiving contact from Chapo even after the escape. It was then that I posed the idea of a magazine story. Espinoza's smile of mischief arose, indicating he would arrange for me to meet Kate back in Los Angeles. At a Santa Monica restaurant, I made my case, and Kate agreed to make the bridge, sending our names for vetting across the border. When word came back a week or so later that Chapo had indeed agreed to meet with us, I called Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone. Myself, Espinoza and El Alto were given the assignment. And with a letter from Jann officiating it, we would join Kate, who was our ticket to El Chapo's trust, then put ourselves in the hands of representatives of the Sinaloa cartel to coordinate our journey.

El Alto is El Alto Garcia, and who is Espinoza? Penn says he's his "brother-in-arms...Espinoza and I have traveled many roads together, but none as unpredictable as the one we are now approaching. Espinoza is the owl who flies among falcons."

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This is not Sean Penn's first byline. Back in 2005, he wrote about going to Iran for the San Francisco Chronicle. The Columbia Journalism Review interviewed his SF Chronicle editor, David Wiegrand, about the experience (or ordeal):

Liz Cox Barrett: How would you describe the editing process for Penn’s pieces? David Wiegand: Um, long. Because it was a very big piece. I mean the original document — before we even determined how many days it would run, which sidebars would go where and so forth — was 13,000 words. So it was a very big piece, and during much of the time that I was actually editing it Sean wasn’t even in this country. He was in London because Robin, his wife, was filming over there. And then he was in Africa at some point, and he was in Paris, I think, at one point. So a lot of it was done by email and over different time changes and time zones. So it was a challenge.

LCB: What are Penn’s strengths and weaknesses — can he write and report?

DW: He has a very good eye as a reporter. He sees all kinds of details, and I hadn’t really thought about this very much in this way before, but I do think that his background and his “day job” help him to really see nuance and detail and character in a really nice way. That, I think, was the strength. If there was a weakness, it was that he absorbed so much and wanted to put it all on the page. And I would have to say, “We have to make some choices here. Let’s go for this quote but not that one,” and, “This scene, I think, interrupts the flow a little bit,” and that sort of thing.

Penn did manage to get a photo with the wanted man:
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Having explained my intention, I ask if he would grant two days for a formal interview. My colleagues would be leaving in the morning but I offer to stay behind to record our conversations. He pauses before responding. He says, "I just met you. I will do it in eight days. Can you come back in eight days?" I say I can. I ask to take a photograph together so that I could verify to my editors at Rolling Stone that the planned meeting had taken place. "Adelante," he says. We all rise from the table as a group and follow Chapo into one of the bungalows. Once inside, we see the first sign of heavy arms. An M16 lies on a couch opposite the neutral white wall against which we would take the photograph. I explain that, for authentication purposes, it would be best if we are shaking hands, looking into the camera, but not smiling. He obliges. The picture is taken on Alfredo's cellphone. It would be sent to me at a later date.

Penn is very honest about what happens when Guzman escorts him to his sleeping quarters, "At this moment, I expel a minor traveler's flatulence (sorry), and with it, I experience the same chivalry he'd offered when putting Kate to bed, as he pretends not to notice."

But not totally honest:

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Penn's followup interview never happened, because the Mexican government was intent on capturing El Chapo. But Guzman sent del Castillo and Penn a video of him answering some questions:

Guzman explained that he grew up in poverty, "Well, from the time I was 15 and after, where I come from, which is the municipality of Badiraguato, I was raised in a ranch named La Tuna, in that area, and up until today, there are no job opportunities. The only way to have money to buy food, to survive, is to grow poppy, marijuana, and at that age, I began to grow it, to cultivate it and to sell it. That is what I can tell you." He said, "Where I grew up there was no other way, and there still isn't a way to survive, no way to work in our economy to be able to make a living."

The NY Times has a helpful "what do we know" about the interview: "Mr. Guzmán agreed to be interviewed, but Mr. Penn wrote that he suspected it was mostly because the drug lord wanted to meet Ms. del Castillo. 'I felt increasingly that I had arrived as a curiosity to him,' the actor wrote."

We guess Rolling Stone promised DiCap the cover: