It’s been just over four months since Sean Penn met with the world’s most wanted drug lord, and things aren’t going as the actor had planned.
“My article has failed,” Penn told CBS’s Charlie Rose in an interview that will air on 60 Minutes this Sunday.
The Oscar winner was referring to the 10,000-plus word screed detailing his meeting this October with notorious Mexican cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, and the events leading up to it. Rolling Stone published Penn’s article this past Saturday, following Guzman's capture six months after his Hollywoodesque escape from a maximum security prison this past July.
Penn had hoped that by interviewing the head of one of the world’s largest and deadliest drug cartels he could spark a meaningful dialogue about U.S. drug war policies. Instead, his interview is being credited with helping lead Mexican authorities to the evasive Guzman—a recognition the actor does not want.
"There is this myth about the visit that we made, my colleagues and I with El Chapo, that it was—as the Attorney General of Mexico is quoted—'essential' to his capture," Penn told Rose. "We had met with him many weeks earlier...on October 2nd, in a place nowhere near where he was captured."
Penn might not have willingly participated in the search for El Chapo but, as Mexico’s Attorney General Arely Gomez explained on a local radio station this week, their meet-up “was an essential element, because we were following [Guzman’s] lawyer, and the lawyer took us to these people and to this meeting.”
According to Mike Vigil, a former chief of international operations with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, that could be enough to put Penn and Mexican actress Kate del Castillo, who facilitated the meeting, in jeopardy.
“These cartels are very violent, they do not forgive any transgression and they will respond in a most violent manner,” Vigil told Yahoo News. “These are people who have dismembered, who have decapitated individuals. So killing Sean Penn and del Castillo means absolutely nothing to them.”
Vigil, whose decades-long DEA career includes several years of undercover work with Mexican cartels, said he thought it was a careless move on the Mexican government’s part to publicize any ties between the Penn meeting and Guzman’s arrest.
“If Chapo Guzman perceives that they cooperated with authorities in his capture, [the cartel] will go after them,” Vigil said, arguing that the risk is likely higher for del Castillo because she was the one in contact with Guzman. She was the one whom Guzman’s associates were instructed to provide with a Blackberry—the phone they’d deemed most secure—and it was their flirtatious correspondence that led to that fateful meeting in the jungle with Sean Penn.
“He developed a childlike infatuation with del Castillo and forgot about the fact that when he was captured in 2014, he was captured as a result of telephone monitoring,” Vigil said. “Apart from that, [del Castillo] is originally from Mexico, she has all of her family in Mexico. One of the traditional violent methods [the cartels] use is if they can’t get to the target, they’ll go after their family members.”
He added, “If I were Kate del Castillo I would run like the wind.”
It took 13 years for authorities to track down El Chapo after his first prison break in 2001, and when he disappeared again in July, the Mexican government took a lot of heat from U.S. officials and Mexican citizens alike who pointed to Guzman’s escapes as evidence of deep-seated corruption and an inability to police its most powerful criminals.
Penn alluded to this dynamic in one section of his Rolling Stone article, in which he describes driving through a military checkpoint with Alfredo Guzman, El Chapo’s son, on the way to meet the man himself.
“Two uniformed government soldiers, weapons at the ready, approach our vehicle. Alfredo lowers his passenger window; the soldiers back away, looking embarrassed, and wave us through,” Penn writes. “Wow. So it is, the power of a Guzman face. And the corruption of an institution.”
The Mexican government has said it plans to extradite Guzman to the U.S. this time around. When that happens, Vigil said, there is a good chance that Penn and del Castillo could be called to testify in federal court about the meeting or certain incriminating parts of the Rolling Stone article, such as the one in which Guzman is quoted saying “I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world. I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats.”
While Penn said he believes the Mexican authorities have deliberately tried to put the blame on him for Guzman’s arrest, he told Charlie Rose he does not fear for his life. He does, however, have “a terrible regret.”
"I have a regret that the entire discussion about this article ignores its purpose, which was to try to contribute to this discussion about the policy in the War on Drugs," Penn said.
Vigil doesn’t blame Penn, but he believes the interview was clearly a huge mistake for everyone involved.
“People in Hollywood have a tendency to live in a cocoon and they really don’t understand all of these implications,” he said.