Is Sean Penn’s Story About El Chapo Even Plausible? Experts Think Not


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American actor Sean Penn led authorities to capture Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, according to a Mexican federal law enforcement official who spoke with reporters from the Associated Press after the notorious drug lord was arrested on Friday. Mexico’s Attorney General, however, said that authorities were tipped off by one of the cartel’s tunnel builders. For now, analysts have competing views about details of Penn’s escapade to meet the druglord along with Mexican actress Kate Del Castillo. ThinkProgress spoke to one Mexico expert who found Penn’s account of the encounter to be unbelievable and another who thought it cohered with what is known about El Chapo and his cartel.

Up first, the skeptic. Jeronimo Cortina is a professor at University of Houston’s Center for Mexican American Studies. He told ThinkProgress that elements of Penn’s dramatic account of meeting El Chapo didn’t add up.

“The simplicity of that situation is mind-boggling,” Cortina said. “I don’t see it [as plausible].”

He said he found it impossible to believe that a man who has evaded capture for decades would be so careless with his own security, just because of his faith in an actor and actress he’d never before met. Indeed, new photos reveal that Mexican authorities closely followed Penn and Del Castillo as they made their way to El Chapo.

Cortino was surprised to read, for example, that El Chapo didn’t have a single English speaker in his security detail. He was equally confounded by accounts of the drug lord chatting with Mexican actress Kate Del Castillo via BBM, a platform which is encrypted, but by no means secure from the reaches of intelligence agencies such as the NSA.

Penn’s account of Espinoza, the man who escorted Penn and Del Castillo to El Chapo, similarly baffled Cortina.

In his essay, Penn offers this glib description from the drug lord’s compound:

Espinoza had recently undergone back surgery. He stretched, readjusted his surgical corset, exposing it. It dawns on me that one of our greeters might mistake the corset for a device that contains a wire, a chip, a tracker. With all their eyes on him, Espinoza methodically adjusts the Velcro toward his belly, slowly looks up, sharing his trademark smile with the suspicious eyes around him. Then, “Cirugia de espalda [back surgery],” he says. Situation defused.

Penn made no mention of Espinoza getting checked for a tap. Instead Espinoza, whose name means “spiny” in Spanish, excused himself just as Penn and Del Castillo sit down with El Chapo.

“Espinoza’s funny this way,” Penn offers. “It’s as if we had spent these endless grueling hours hiking a vertical volcanic summit to the cone, and now, just three steps from viewing the ring fault of the caldera, he says, ‘I’m gonna take a nap. I’ll look into the hole later.’”

During his time away from the gaze of El Chapo’s men, it seems entirely possible that he could have informed authorities of the trafficker’s whereabouts. The prospect that Espinoza, del Castillo, or even Penn himself could have found a way to blow the cover on El Chapo’s hideout seems even more probable given that a raid on the cartel’s strongholds in the Sinaloa state of Mexico started the day after they left.

Why would a drug lord who has not spoken to reporters in more than 10 years risk capture in order to speak to a Mexican startlet and an American actor? According to Penn, he was not satisfied with infamy and developed an interest in staking a claim to fame after he heard that there might be interest in making a film about his life.

“With his dramatic capture, and, perhaps, the illusion of safe dealings now that El Chapo was locked up, the gringos were scrambling to tell his story,” Penn explained. “The seed was planted, and El Chapo, awakened to the prospect, made plans of his own. He was interested in seeing the story of his life told on film, but would entrust its telling only to Kate [del Castillo].”

El Chapo trusted Del Castillo, and he trusted Penn by proxy.

That seems to be a lot of faith for someone who’s a wanted man to put in someone he’s never met.

But, according to Nathan Jones of Rice University, “It’s consistent with [descriptions that we have of El Chapo from other sources]: The guy’s a ladies man.”

He believes that El Chapo might have been willing to bend over backwards for a starlet he admired. The prospect of connecting with a Hollywood actor might have added to interest, since the drug lord is believed to have become interested in producing a film about his life after his escape from a maximum security prison six months ago.

To Jones, who studies drug policy and Mexico, the notion of a prospective film appealing to El Chapo isn’t all that off either.

“Many of these people want to make movies about themselves that they can control,” he told ThinkProgress in a phone interview.

Given that he’s managed to evade capture for years, Jones added that the issue of misplaced trust might be beyond the point.

Although the interview didn’t go as he’d have hoped (Penn ended up sending translated questions to El Chapo via BBM for him to respond to in a video instead of having a sit-down conversation) the questions he posed have drawn ire from those who closely follow Mexican cartels — or who have been personally affected by the havoc it has wrought on the country.

According to figures collected by the Mexican government, at least 20,000 were murdered last year alone, often in violence related to the country’s drug trade.


Reprinted with permission from Think Progress, a branch of The Center for American Progress