Kate del Castillo — the actress who took Sean Penn to interview El Chapo — had already been under surveillance for her links to the drug lord for 14 months before the meeting took place in a mountain hideout.
In the wake of the kingpin's recapture on Friday, Mexican authorities said that the monitoring of contacts with actors and producers aided the manhunt launched in the the wake of his tunnel escape from prison in July. An unnamed official told The Associated Press that the Penn interview in October for a later article in Rolling Stone directly led to an operation that almost caught up with him then.
Now El Universal has published details of the surveillance of Del Castillo it claims was well-established before his escape from the Altiplano maximum-security prison and continued after he was a fugitive. It said their contact included letters exchanged while he was in jail, as well as several meetings between the actress and Guzmán's lawyers prior to their mountain encounter.
The article is backed up by photos purported to be taken before and during the meetings, as well as snaps of her and Penn meeting Guzmán's associates upon arrival in Mexico on October 2 on their way to interview El Chapo.
The paper said the surveillance of Del Castillo began in August 2014. El Chapo reportedly instructed one of his lawyers, Andrés Granados Flores, to contact her about making a biopic about his life. Through Guzmán's legal team the actress and drug lord wrote to each other regarding the project.
The first face-to-face meeting between Del Castillo and Granados reportedly took place on June 16, 2015 — still nearly a month before Chapo's jailbreak — in an upscale restaurant named the San Ángel Inn, located in the south of Mexico City. The paper claimed it has seen photographs from the meeting showing the actress wearing a black blouse and a white skirt, while the lawyer wore a black suit.
El Universal said that Del Castillo and Granados met again after Chapo was on the run, on September 25, in the Western City of Guadalajara. A published photograph purports to show her after arriving on the airline Aeroméxico, flight 783, from Los Angeles.
Another from the following day claims to show her sitting in a restaurant with Granados and another member of Guzmán's legal team, Óscar Manuel Gómez Núñez.
The report said she saw the lawyers twice on that occasion. First for dinner and the following morning when they gave her a phone with some sort of special features that would allow her to communicate directly with Joaquin Guzmán.
The timing of this meeting appears to be reinforced by Sean Penn's Rolling Stone article in which he says that on September 28 he got confirmation from his contact with Del Castillo that he would be able to meet Chapo.
Penn wrote that he and Del Castillo flew from Los Angeles to an unnamed "city in mid-Mexico" in a chartered plane four days later.
According to the article in El Universal, the city was Guadalajara and the plane was a Hawker 900XP private jet. The paper published a photo it said was of the actors meeting the lawyer. From there they reportedly went to the Hotel Villa Ganza where they registered, dropped off their equipment, and left.
From Guadalajara the paper cited the surveillance tracking the two actors in two vans to Tepic, the capital of Nayarit state. Penn also said they travelled to another city that he did not name.
Both accounts say the group boarded two private planes — El Universal says one was white and the other yellow — at a tourist resort with a private airstrip that took them into the Golden Triangle mountain region.
According to Penn's article, they were accompanied by one of El Chapo's sons, Alfredo Guzmán.
Penn noted in his article his own concerns about being tracked in the plane but said that Chapo's son put him at ease by pointing out a "red scrambler switch below the cockpit controls" that he claimed blocked ground radar and that an inside man provided them with information about when the military's high-altitude surveillance plane has been deployed.
"He has great confidence that there are no unwanted eyes on us," Penn wrote.
Military technology and weaponry expert Dr. Robert J. Bunker was confused.
"It doesn't make any sense," Bunker, adjunct faculty for the Division of Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate University, told VICE News. "If this existed it would be on all our planes."
Bunker said he knew of no invisible radar scrambling systems for small planes, and listed several hypothetical ways it could function before discounting them by saying they would be in "the realm of 'Dr. Evil' planning and technology that borders on simple fantasy."
Bunker suggested that somebody may had "sold the narcos a 'high technology scrambling system'—but it really doesn't work." Another possibility could be that Penn was told a story to calm his fears.
After the flight, they arrived in the Golden Triangle. After a long road trip they met El Chapo for seven hours of chatting, tequila, and tacos, before agreeing to meet eight days later for a two-day long interview.
This interview never took place because three days after Chapo, Penn and Del Castillo met, the kingpin narrowly slipped a navy operation to capture him.
An unnamed source in Mexican federal law enforcement told The Associated Press that it was the Penn interview that triggered that operation.
Some, however, are not so sure.
Mexican columnist Raymundo Riva Palacio wrote on Monday on the website Eje Central that the authorities had already identified Chapo's precise location in the Sierra before the interview.
While he says that surveillance of Del Castillo would have provided useful information in the manhunt for the fugitive after his escape, her presence in the area alongside a major movie star actually postponed the operation to try and capture him.
"The US requested that the operation to capture him be postponed 72 hours," Riva Palacio told VICE News, insisting he had two reliable Mexican sources confirming this. "My theory is that they are putting the emphasis on the actors because they are protecting somebody, perhaps undercover people."
In the end Chapo escaped that operation and was not tracked down until Friday, January 8, in the northern city of Los Mochis, Sinaloa.
A GoPro video was released on Monday showing the initial stage of the raid on a safe house where Guzmán was hiding. Gun shots and arrests take place for 15 minutes as they search for El Chapo in the video.
The drug lord had slipped out of the house into the city's sewage system through a hole tunnel reportedly built in a closet. He was caught hours after resurfacing, stealing a vehicle, and attempting to flee the city.
Penn's article created a major stir when it was published on Saturday night. The star said he had "nothin' to hide" in a brief email exchange with The Associated Press. Del Castillo has yet to make any comment at all, other than to tell a reporter from Univision, "Everything [will happen] when and how it should. Don't call me again."
Follow Nathaniel Janowitz on Twitter: @ngjanowitz