What We Know So Far About Sean Penn's Meeting With 'El Chapo' in the Mexican Jungle

Sean Penn was apparently able to track down a drug lord who's eluded the governments of two countries, even though the actor admitted to not knowing how to use a laptop.

Jan 11 2016, 5:30pm

Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted by army soldiers to a waiting helicopter, at a federal hangar in Mexico City on Friday. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

On Friday afternoon, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto tweeted that his country's most notorious criminal, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, best known as "El Chapo," or "Shorty," was once again in custody. As the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, Guzmán is arguably a bigger deal than Pablo Escobar was at his heyday. What's for certain is that he's responsible for a huge swath of the global drug trade—along with the routinized kidnappings and murders endemic to that world.

His escape out of Mexican prison through an elaborate tunnel system last July propelled the man into further infamy. And because he's been indicted in multiple US states, the question on everyone's mind since Guzmán's escape (his second from a maximum-security prison) last summer has been: What happens if he gets captured again? Since Guzmán's home country seems unable to hold him, would American law enforcement be allowed to extradite and try him, as officials reportedly tried to do just weeks before his latest escape?

But all the practical questions about Guzmán's fate were temporarily shelved on Saturday night when Rolling Stone published an insane 10,000-word El Chapo story by actor Sean Penn.

Apparently, in October, the 55-year-old flew out to Mexico and spent seven hours with the kingpin. He brokered the meeting through Kate del Castillo, a Mexican actress who once played a crime boss on TV and had previously won the affection of Guzman with a series of sympathetic tweets.

The scenario is almost too bizarre to be true. That the dude who played Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High was able to track down a drug lord who's eluded the governments of two countries is astounding. It's even more crazy when you read, in the first paragraph of his story, that Penn doesn't even know how to use a laptop.

The humiliation of various bureaucratic agencies aside, reporters on the Chapo beat are feeling a bit stung, too. Scoring an exclusive with the biggest fugitive in the world is a journalistic holy grail, and there are writers who've spent years trying to pick apart the shadowy underworld of Mexican drug gangs, risking their lives in the process. El Chapo was also allowed to see the story before it was published, which had experts debating whether or not the magazine breached a core tenet of journalistic ethics. Finally, in the short Q and A (dispatched by Chapo via video) that closes out the article, Penn's (written) questions leave a lot to be desired. It's the equivalent of having God in a room and the chance to ask just one question, and going with, So, what's your favorite color?

What's more, almost any reader who peruses the story is apt to feel embarrassed because the account is so bloated and self-centered. The actor's narrative, which opens with a quote from French Renaissance philosopher Montaigne and veers into tangents about own penis, has been widely mocked online.

In any event, a Mexican law enforcement official told the Associated Press on Sunday that the interview with Penn helped lead to Chapo's arrest. Security forces apparently raided the area where the two met in Tamazula, a rural enclave of Durango state, a few days after the sit-down, and then finally captured Chapo after a gunfight in his Sinaloa homeland on Friday.

What remains unclear is whether or not the actor colluded with authorities or was merely insufficiently scrupulous in his reporting—although he writes in Rolling Stone that he went to great lengths to conceal his subject's whereabouts, using a different burner phone every day. (Another possibility, of course, is that the Mexican government is simply playing it cool by suggesting it knew all about the interview as it happened.) Meanwhile, Mexican authorities have begun the process of formally extraditing El Chapo to the United States—a nod to the virtual impossibility of guarding against the man's money and influence.

Sean Penn, for his part, has not commented publicly since his story appeared online.

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