Wanted Criminal Kingpins Probably Shouldn’t Try to Make Biopics About Their Lives
But there's more to their attempts at cinematic legacy than stupidity and hubris.
On Friday, after a shootout in the Sinaloa coastal town of Los Mochis that left five dead, Mexican officials recaptured Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, the billionaire head of the Sinaloa cartel. The raid, likened to a scene from an action movie by local bystanders, was a fitting end to the kingpin's latest stint as a fugitive following his outright campy escape in July from a maximum security prison via a hole in his shower's floor leading to a mile-long tunnel 30 feet below ground sporting oxygen tanks, ventilation, and a special motorcycle fixed to a track. Yet while this was apparently the culmination of a long investigation, the revelation that Sean Penn traveled to Mexico to meet with El Chapo for a Rolling Stone story in October, coupled with the fact that the kingpin had approached moviemakers about making a biopic, has led many to focus in how those events might have factored into his capture. Mexico's attorney general, Arely Gomez, commented that in his efforts to get a biopic made "he established communication with actresses and producers, which became a new line of investigation."
The Mexican actress Kate del Castillo, who played a queen-pin in a 2011 Spanish drama, served as the broker for Penn's meeting with El Chapo. After she tweeted relatively positive things about the Sinaloa headman in 2012 he reportedly sent her flowers and started to talk to her via his lawyers in 2014 about a biopic. Penn apparently heard about Del Castillo's connection after she'd floated the idea with some filmmakers, and used her to score what may be the first interview with El Chapo since 1993—conducted in part over seven hours in the jungle surrounded by cartel guards and continued later via BBM and video responses. In the piece Penn admitted that he suspected his communiqués were being monitored, and days after the meeting Mexican forces tracked El Chapo to the same region, forcing him to flee after a standoff that left him wounded in the face and leg. Mexican authorities apparently want to speak to Del Castillo and Penn about their association with El Chapo, although it's unclear if the pair is in legal trouble.
This tale of Hollywood involvement in a real-life narco drama is strange and quasi-comedic. Yet what's weirder than El Chapo's doubly cinematic apprehension is that this isn't the first time a kingpin has gotten himself into trouble because he wanted to make a movie about his life. In October 2013 Mohamed Abdi "Afweyne" Hassan, the man accused of pioneering highly organized Somali piracy, was arrested after he flew to Belgium under the pretense of consulting on a film about his own exploits. When he arrived, however, he found that he had walked into a sting set up by local authorities. In both El Chapo and Afweyne's cases, media reports paint the men's falls as stupid slip-ups—the result of unbridled hubris and fat egos. Yet in both cases (the details of which differ significantly) the kingpins operated with a certain opaque logic and caution rather than blind narcissism.
One key difference between the cases is the fact that Afweyne (a Somali nickname meaning "Big Mouth") is a small fry compared to El Chapo. He reportedly only entered the world of piracy between 2003 and 2005, using business savvy to transform longstanding low-key coastal raids (often committed by locals in northeast Somalia against illegal fishers exploiting the failed state's natural resources) into a corporatized endeavor. Recruiting these individual pirates, he allegedly created the tactics that allowed them to hunt farther out in the Indian Ocean and take on larger targets, winning widespread notoriety in 2008 when men supposedly linked to him captured the Saudi-owned Sirius Star supertanker and ransomed it for almost $4 million.
Afweyne had reportedly moved away from direct involvement with his cartel by 2010, leaving operations to his son, Abdiqaadir. He obtained a pardon from Mohamed "Tiiceey" Aden, the self-declared president of his Himan and Heeb region, and moved into quasi-legitimate business ventures. By 2012, he claimed to be doing anti-piracy work for the (now replaced) national Transitional Federal Government; then in January 2013 he held a press conference renouncing piracy and pledging to work on rehabilitating other pirates.
Around that time, Belgian officials posing as filmmakers apparently approached Afweynevia Tiiceey, offering him a chance to tell his own story. The details of the plan remain unclear, but Belgium apparently wanted to lure him out of Somalia, which they feared would never extradite him. So the story goes that they appealed to his ego—then managed to lock him up in Bruges, where his trial (carrying a possible 20-year prison sentence) started fitfully in September 2015 and will likely grind on slowly throughout the early months of 2016.
Yet there's more to Afweyne's misstep into a honeypot than a stupid, vainglorious fuck up. VICE's Alex Chitty was in contact with the kingpin throughout 2013 in the hopes of making an actual documentary on his life. He recalls that Afweyne was very cautious with him; it took months of calls and proof of his journalistic credentials (via a copy of his press card) to set up just one meeting—that never materialized. Although Chitty thinks the ex-pirate may be slightly "unhinged," he sees logic in his cautious engagement with filmmakers.
"I reckon Afweyne wanted to legitimize himself internationally," he said. "I think he also thought that he was firewalled from any criminal charges because he... didn't have dirty fingers. He didn't go out on boats and rob shit from ships [himself.]"
Afweyne had reason to believe he could show up in Belgium, even with an INTERPOL notice out, and move around freely. As Chitty recalls, he'd received a diplomatic passport from the Transitional Federal Government in 2012 and an amnesty from the current government. He'd traveled to Libya (where Muammar al-Qaddafi feted him) in 2009 and to Malaysia, where his passport got him out of legal trouble, in 2012. He was also pretty popular in regions of Somalia and, at that moment, in the good graces of the official national government. Chitty thinks it's possible that officials managed to give him enough false assurances to give him the confidence to try and flex his theoretical immunity.
El Chapo lacked Afweyne's theoretical official (if internationally discounted) immunity. Nor was he actively courted (so far as we know) to do a movie by spooks in disguise. Instead he was the one out to get himself on the silver screen. But although his situation was different than Afweyne's, he wasn't completely off his rocker in reaching out to Hollywood types either.
El Chapo knew that folks were already laying a claim to his life's story. Last year, Don Winslow released a novel, The Cartel, based on his tunnel escape. This week will see the release of Chapo. El escape del siglo, the first installment in a local four-part low-budget gangster series on the big boss. And several folks in Hollywood have purchased rights to elements of his story; others apparently approached him in prison to talk movies as well.
El Chapo doesn't seem happy with the presentations out there—he apparently tried to get Del Castillo to help him nix Chapo. El escape del siglo before its release. So it makes sense that he'd try to tell his own story— apparently with great caution and security at every step. It also makes sense that he'd feel, like Afweyne, fairly firewalled—in Mexico at least, where he's regarded as a folk hero more popular than the government by a not insignificant number of people and where he's had great success bribing his way out of trouble before. He's so cautious and protected that some, like Winslow, suspect that El Chapo may have cut a deal with the Mexican government for his genteel and ineffectual re-arrest rather than misstepped for cinematic glory.
Not only are the cases of Afweyne and El Chapo more complicated than the simplistic tales of morality, stupidity, and hubris that we might want them to be, their apprehension while exploring movie projects may create thorny issues for future media and criminal investigations. Back in 2013, Slate's Joshua Keating (and others) noted that the film sting against Afweyne would only increase the perception in sensitive regions that journalists are spies, complicating already difficult reporting missions. And even though El Chapo was not tricked like Afweyne, Chitty suspects that the revelation that Mexican officials were able to track his circumspect communications with filmmakers may spoil ins for other documentarians. He notes that his own March 2015 film on the connections between sub-Saharan Islamists and Latin American drug markets might not have come together if the drug runners he talked to had El Chapo's arrest on their minds. That's not to say that these kingpins didn't get a fair comeuppance or that the interests of investigators and filmmakers trump the public's right to see criminals brought to (hopefully fair) justice. But it is worth remembering that there's a lot more logic, complexity, and complication to these seemingly laughable tales of ego than first meets the eye.
Follow Mark on Twitter.