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How Kate Del Castillo Became the Rebel Celebrity Who Took Sean Penn to ‘Chapo’

The interview orchestrated by the Mexican actress raises tough questions for her career, her new tequila brand, and the whole business of narco pop media at large.

by Daniel Hernandez
Jan 11 2016, 7:45pm

Image via EPA

With the interview she brokered between actor Sean Penn and drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, the actress Kate del Castillo obliterated the boundaries between fiction and reality in the murky world of drug lords and the mass media machines that profit off their stories.

And she even managed to insert a plug into the interview for her new tequila brand, called Honor.

Del Castillo, with her commanding yet girl-next-door presence on the screen, is known to millions of television viewers across Mexico, Central and South America, and among millions of Spanish-language media consumers in the United States.

Now she might be under investigation for setting up the meeting between Penn and Guzmán, Mexican authorities told news outlets in unattributed comments.

To many fans, Del Castillo is still the tough-as-nails fictional lead Teresa Mendoza, the wife of a narco boss who fights her way through tragedy and conflict to become a drug lord in her own right, in La Reina del Sur, the hit soap produced by US media network Telemundo.

Right at the peak of the telenovela's popularity, Del Castillo in January 2012 wrote an open letter to the real-life figurehead of the Sinaloa Cartel, Guzmán, urging him to "traffic in goodness."

"You know how," she wrote.

That message prompted scolding from drug-war adherents, but also caught the attention of Guzmán.

Del Castillo would later tell top Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui her treatise was not so much a hurrah for Chapo but rather a critique of Mexico's political class.

She also tried to downplay the message as little more than rambling thoughts on politics and religion, the sort any other Hollywood star indulges in occasionally. But was it also rooted in some real-world frustration?

Related: Sean Penn Interviewed El Chapo — And It Helped Lead to the Drug Lord's Capture

In 2011, when La Reina del Sur aired, Mexico had its bloodiest single year in the extremely bloody war on drugs, peaking to a rate of 24 homicides per 100,000 people — a wave of killings to be blamed partly on the exploits of the Sinaloa Cartel under Chapo, and the government's insistence to fight fire with fire.

While critics admonished Del Castillo's florid words for the drug lord, dubbing it apologia, the actress might have struck a chord with Mexicans on both sides of the border who were growing weary with the conflict's violence and terror.

"Even bad guys can do good," she told Aristegui last November, apparently a month after having taken Penn to meet Chapo.

Actress Kate Del Castillo at the August 2015 premiere of "The 33" in Mexico City. (Photo by Sashenka Gutierrez/EPA)

Guzmán evidently sympathized with the sentiments expressed by the actress in her letter.

Sean Penn revealed in Rolling Stone that the drug lord sent the actress flowers and the two began a correspondence through a web of encrypted Blackberry messages. The relationship and eventual interview might have placed the Sinaloa Cartel's famously disciplined communications security at risk, but it seemed the cartel boss was eager to take a gamble.

Guzmán wanted his life story told right, and for him, Del Castillo was the right lady to do it. In the Rolling Stone piece, Penn describes Del Castillo's goal of making a biopic on Guzmán. A short video preview of the question-and-answer session with the drug lord is tagged as a project owned by "Kate Del Castillo Productions."

Del Castillo, 43, grew up in show biz in Mexico City with show biz parents. She was minted in the star machine at Televisa, the dominant media conglomerate that spreads Mexican-made telenovelas around the globe.

Some adults today remember her from the 1990s teen telenovela Muchachitas. She's been married and divorced twice, once to a soccer star.

Del Castillo then relocated to the US, where her star status grew with roles on the series Weeds and in the film The 33. She also began advocating for women's rights, lending her support to films about gender-based violence, and animal rights.

Related: Chapo's Return to Prison: The Hunt, the Biopic, and a Weakness for Tunnels

Televisa starlets are generally expected to keep quiet about Mexican affairs no matter how big their names get.

Yet it was probably a natural progression for Del Castillo to rebel against Televisa, which has a historically fond alliance with Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Since the return of the PRI to the presidency in 2012, Del Castillo has been critical of the government under President Enrique Peña Nieto.

The anti-government posture fits into a broader trend of Mexican stars succeeding in Hollywood and making waves with negative comments about issues back home. At the 2015 Oscars ceremony, best-picture winner Alejandro González Iñárritu called on Mexicans to "find and build a government that we deserve."

Josh Kun, a professor of communications at the University of Southern California, said Del Castillo's persona both on and off the screen reflects a keen awareness of the tools of celebrity — with an outsider approach. He pointed to Del Castillo's response to the so-called White House scandal in Mexico as proof that she is "not afraid to speak out against corruption in the media, and corruption in both the US and Mexican governments."

'Does Kate del Castillo now own Chapo's story?'

In late 2014, a team of journalists working for Aristegui broke open a scandal that arguably in more robust democracies would have led to a government's downfall.

Aristegui reporters found that First Lady Angélica Rivera — a former Televisa telenovela star from the 1990s as well — had a gleaming-white mansion "transferred" to her from Televisa shortly after her marriage to Peña Nieto. The mansion had been bought from a government contractor in lucrative business deals with the president and top members of his cabinet.

No one's really lost their job over the "Casa Blanca" scandal in Mexico, but the investigative report left a lingering suggestion that Rivera's marriage to Peña Nieto appeared almost like a business transaction, ready for the political red carpet.

Del Castillo took a jab at her former colleague at Televisa late last year. She told Aristegui in the same interview the salaries that she and Rivera made as Televisa actors would have never been able to cover a mansion worth $7 million dollars, as the government argued in the first lady's defense.

"I have a lot of affection for Televisa," Del Castillo said. "My parents make their living at Televisa, but we'd never make that kind of money."

Yet even that foray into national politics in Mexico came with a hint of Del Castillo's knack for busting boundaries on the media metasphere.

For months the actress has been in production for a Netflix series titled "Ingobernable," or "Ungovernable." In it, she plays the ruthless wife of a president.

Del Castillo and Mexican actor Diego Luna in December 2014. (Photo via EPA)

Through a publicist, Del Castillo on Monday morning declined a request for an interview.

Guzmán is behind bars in Mexico once more — almost unbelievably — at the same prison where he burrowed to an escape through a mile-long tunnel fitted with a modified motorcycle in July 2015. Authorities say his face-to-face meeting with Penn and Del Castillo helped lead to his capture.

In one scene described by Penn in his story, Del Castillo seems to take on the persona of her most beloved role, Teresa Mendoza. She gamely takes the steering wheel of a truck for the actor and their crew to outrun a storm in the terrain where they had met El Chapo. The author who wrote the novel on which La Reina del Sur is based tweeted to the actress on Sunday: "I like that in a certain way you are still Teresita Mendoza."

For Penn and Del Castillo, the prospect of being investigated by officials either in Mexico or the US now looms over them. Del Castillo became a US citizen last September, and made sure to tweet about it to Donald Trump, with a warning of "I speak out and I don't support you."

"If they go after them as stunt journalists, what we're looking at is stunt politics, it's spectacle begetting spectacle," Kun said. "Going after them is not going to do anything to fight the impunity and corruption and mass death that needs to be addressed."

Yet the interview in Rolling Stone and the process that led to it raises difficult questions for Del Castillo — including the marketing of her tequila brand. It also raises questions for the whole business of narco pop media at large, a world where drug lords are lionized in narco-ballads, in American hip-hop tracks, and in blockbuster films and television series.

"Now, were lines crossed by putting 'Kate del Castillo Productions' at the end of that video? Does Kate del Castillo now own Chapo's story? And by owning that story, does that mean she is actually enabling that story?" Kun went on. "I don't think we can judge that quite yet, but I do think, now, that makes her a very easy target."

Related: Mexicans Outraged — But Not Surprised — After Crony Clears President in 'White House' Scandal

Follow Daniel Hernandez on Twitter: @longdrivesouth