One of the more unbelievable capers in modern journalism is, of course, that an A-list actor was dispatched by the editor-in-chief of a formerly gonzo music magazine to secretly interview the fugitive mastermind of a deadly Mexican drug cartel, for an interview that he was allowed to pre-approve before publication. Put plainly, it truly sounds like the plot of the next Coen Brothers film, particularly when one considers that some people theorize that the A-list actor—who also fancies himself a human rights activist—may have in fact been working as an undercover proxy for the US government, seeking to capture the drug baron after he escaped from prison by literally digging a fucking tunnel out of it.

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How, even!?

By the wits and wiles of a telenovela star friendly with the cartel boss, of course! A new piece in the New Yorker looks to understand the motivation Kate del Castillo had in coordinating a meeting between hapless antihero and erstwhile journalist Sean Penn and El Chapo Guzman (besides, of course, the pretext of making a film about the latter’s life). One of the main takeaways: a bunch of the crap Penn wrote in his article was “bullshit,” as one might have surmised from the elaborate prose and non sequitur personal reflections with which he peppered it. Also, she says he didn’t tell her about his intent to write an article until after she’d already taken to see Guzman. Not to cast aspersions on your favorite piece of journalism this year! But:

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Del Castillo says that Penn’s claim that he told her about his idea for an article at their first meeting is “total and complete bullshit,” and that his mention of the story to El Chapo was the first she had heard of it. “This was not how I was expecting the night to be,” she told me. “But at the moment I thought, Maybe we can base the movie on this article.” For several hours, del Castillo served as translator. They discussed Hugo Chávez, the Mexican government, and Donald Trump. El Chapo seemed genuinely curious about whether the American public knew who he was. Penn told him that he would like to hang around for two more days. El Chapo replied that this was impossible. He suggested that they reconvene eight days later. Penn said that he would be happy to do so. He also offered to give their host final approval of the story. Of that decision, Wenner told the Times, “It was a small thing to do in exchange for what we got.”

Penn did not, del Castillo tells the New Yorker, “take notes or record the conversation”—which probably goes a long way towards explaining that interlude about his life as a surfer on fucking Malibu—and only after they had met did El Chapo answer Penn’s questions for his Rolling Stone article. (If there’s ever any doubt that white men get special treatment in journalism, even if they’re celebrities who cannot write, look no further.) Penn gets his due here, though:

“You’re talking to the biggest criminal in the world, and you ask him if he loves his mother,” Sabina Berman, a Mexican essayist and playwright who has written extensively about El Chapo, said to me. “And you don’t ask him, O.K., is the Army working with you? Who distributes the drugs in America? Who are your partners, or are you distributing them yourself? How about the police in America, the D.E.A.—is it true that they have a pact with you? What about the heroin trade that is growing in America—is it you or is it someone else?” She added, “This was no interview. This was a publicity stunt.”

This highlights what was so infuriating and irresponsible about the piece in the first place, and why even with the best intentions Penn’s activism can seem self-aggrandizing: he claimed to be more interested in sparking a conversation about the drug war, but in his time in a once-in-a-lifetime interview with the leader of the biggest and most deadly drug cartel in México and the world, he didn’t seem to show any meaningful awareness of the human casualties therein. And, even though Kate del Castillo clearly has some major probs of her own to work through—like, mujer, I know it’s probably advantageous in many ways (including the act of continuing to stay alive) to befriend a guy like El Chapo, but come the fuck on—yet she appears to have gotten totally fucked over by Penn in his efforts to... what? Get a Pulitzer? The whole enterprise was for shame, and a mess.


Contact the author at julianne@jezebel.com.