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Sean Penn Met El Chapo — And Helped Mexican Cops Track Him Down

The actor detailed the encounter in a Rolling Stone article.

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Mexican authorities have finally recaptured the fugitive drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. And it turns out they may have Sean Penn to thank.

In an article published in Rolling Stone late Saturday, Penn detailed meeting with Guzmán in October, three months after the drug lord broke out of prison through a hidden tunnel. Mexican actress Kate Del Castillo, who at one point played a drug kingpin in a Mexican soap, brokered the meeting between the two men. That meeting, Mexican authorities say, helped lead them to Guzmán, the head of the Sinaloa Cartel. They arrested Guzmán on Friday and plan to extradite him to the United States.

“Another important aspect that helped locate him was discovering Guzmán’s intention to have a biographical film made. He contacted actresses and producers, which was part of one line of investigation,” Mexican Attorney General Arely Gomez told reporters Friday.

The saga began in October, when Penn and Del Castillo traveled to Mexico and met Guzmán after a long journey into the Mexican jungle. The two men had dinner together, drank tequila, and talked for several hours about Mexico, the drug business, and the United States. “I don’t want to be portrayed as a nun,” Guzmán, a man intimately involved in Mexico’s brutal drug war, told Penn. “All I do is defend myself, nothing more. But do I start trouble? Never.” Upon mention of Donald Trump, Guzmán smiles, “Ah! Mi amigo!”

Guzmán also brags of his operation. “I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world,” he told Penn. “I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats.”

According to Penn, Guzmán’s engineers received three months of training in Germany on how to build a tunnel on a low-lying water table to facilitate his last escape from jail.

White House officials lamented the interview on Sunday. “One thing I will tell you is that this braggadocious action about how much heroin he sends around the world, including the United States, is maddening,” White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told CNN.

To meet the fugitive, Penn writes that he relied on encrypted communication tools, burner cell phones, and a range of intermediaries. Once Penn and Del Castillo arrived in Mexico for the meeting, Guzmán’s lieutenants quickly shepherded them into their care, taking them to a private plane for a journey into the jungle. Penn writes that he was escorted to the meeting by Guzmán’s son, and that the plane they rode in was equipped with a radar-jamming device.

According to Penn, Guzmán’s son informed him that a source within the government provides reliable intelligence on when and where Mexican authorities operate their aerial surveillance plane and assured Penn that they had evaded detection.

But following Guzmán’s capture Friday and the publication of Penn’s article, Mexican authorities have said that they were aware of the meeting and that it helped them track down the fugitive.

Del Castillo had landed on Guzmán’s radar after she wrote admiringly of him on Twitter, and, according to Penn, the drug lord would only trust her with the film that would tell his life story.

But the project Del Castillo and Penn embarked upon together — to secure an in-person interview with their subject — ultimately failed. During their rendezvous in the Mexican jungle, Guzmán agreed in principle to the interview, but shortly after their meeting, Mexican troops attacked the cartel boss. Guzmán went underground, and Penn lost contact with his intermediaries.

Instead of a formal interview, Penn passed questions to Guzmán via Del Castillo, and Guzmán answered them in video form. Guzmán said he began growing and selling marijuana and poppy at the age of 15, because of a lack of jobs where he grew up. He denied that his cartel had contributed to high rates of drug use. “The day I don’t exist, it’s not going to decrease in any way at all.”

Guzmán minimized his own role in the violence associated with the Mexican drug trade. “It is because already some people already grow up with problems, and there is some envy and they have information against someone else,” he said. “That is what creates violence.” Guzmán told Penn he hadn’t personally consumed drugs in 20 years.

Penn’s account of his account with Chapo ultimately reveals much more about his own experience than the life of a fugitive drug lord. Penn writes of his own fears during the meeting, including whether a drone was hovering far above the jungle waiting to strike down the cartel leader.

Ahead of the meeting, he worried about his subject’s predilection for violence and whether they might turn on him. Before climbing into a waiting SUV, Penn wandered over to the tree line to relieve himself. “Dick in hand, I do consider it among my body parts vulnerable to the knives of irrational narco types, and take a fond last look, before tucking it back into my pants,” Penn writes.

Penn’s article includes a note that Rolling Stone granted pre-publication review to Guzmán to approve the interview’s contents. According to the magazine, he did not request any changes. Rolling Stone did not reply to emailed questions about its justification for allowing pre-publication review.

ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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