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How Actor Sean Penn Came To Interview 'El Chapo' For 'Rolling Stone'


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

First, there was the news Friday that the Mexican drug lord Joaquin Guzman, known El Chapo, had been recaptured. Now, another dramatic twist to the story has come to light.

Last night, Rolling Stone published an interview conducted by Sean Penn with El Chapo during his time on the run. The actor and one of the world's most wanted fugitives met for the first time in October in an undisclosed jungle location in Mexico.

Joining me now to talk about how this bizarre get together came to be with NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico and NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Welcome to you both.



MARTIN: First, Carrie, walk us through this. What do we know about how this meeting was arranged?

KAHN: Well, Penn's contact with Guzman was initiated and went through Mexican actress Kate del Castillo. She's a well-known actress here and in the U.S. She actually starred in a TV series a few years back, where she played a female drug capo. About four years ago, she posted on social media as what seemed to be an admiring note about the drug trafficker. And then he reportedly contacted her about that post through his lawyers. After his spectacular prison escape through that mile-long tunnel, the contact between the two intensified, and Guzman determined that he wanted del Castillo to make a movie about his life.

And in his article in Rolling Stone, Penn says he met del Castillo through a mutual friend, and in October of last year, about three months after Guzman's escape, Penn and del Castillo made that trek into the mountains outside Guzman's home state of Sinaloa and had their sit-down with him.

Authorities here said that that meeting and subsequent contacts with del Castillo helped them locate Guzman's whereabouts. And shortly after Penn's visit to Guzman, the Mexican marines closed in on him and raided that compound. Guzman got away at that time but was finally captured on Friday.

MARTIN: El Chapo hadn't given an interview in decades. So did Sean Penn's interview reveal anything new about him?

KAHN: I'd say not much. This is the first interview Guzman has given since the 1990s. He did boast that he was a major trafficker of cocaine, marijuana and heroin in the world before he claimed to be just a poor farmer.

I think what's new here is that just days after Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto was celebrating this victory of Guzman's capture and possible restoration of his reputation that'd been so damaged by Guzman's escape, we learn that two Hollywood actors were able to find Guzman before the Mexican authorities were.

And, you know, once Penn actually gets down to questioning Guzman, the questions just lack substance. Guzman doesn't have interest in engaging in philosophical interactions with Penn. And remember, Guzman has caused incalculable violence and murder in this country. He's been a major player in the drug war that's claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people and subverted the rule of law here.

MARTIN: And David, I'm going to turn to you. The Mexican government is moving toward extraditing El Chapo to the U.S. where he'll face drug and murder charges. What are we to make of Sean Penn's involvement in this legally and journalistically?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you have to think about it from a couple standpoints. You know, he's an activist. He's done reporting of a sort before, these kind of bromance pieces involving Hugo Chavez or the Castro brothers, very much left of center politically. So it's not that he's never done this. You know, people have raised a lot of questions. You know, has he been involved in harboring a fugitive? And certainly he acknowledges in the course of his meandering story - really, a voyage to try to get to Guzman - that he took a lot of steps to conceal his location and make sure the feds couldn't eavesdrop on that.

It's not clear to me whether this falls into something that federal authorities would actually want to prosecute. But that said, he certainly, in a sense, was complicit in keeping Guzman's whereabouts unknown to pursue what was, you know, in essence, a journalistic effort.

MARTIN: And David, what does this mean for Rolling Stone? I mean, making a decision like this - to publish a piece - an interview with a convicted drug lord on the lam, conducted by a Hollywood superstar, not a journalist?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it's hard not to look at this as a stunt. I mean, certainly, it's the publication that posts - that - you know, publishes Matt Taibbi and Hunter S. Thompson and people who have done a lot of funny pieces. It was a purple story, singularly unedifying, and they had to make a real compromise. I mean, they acknowledged they made an understanding with Guzman that the piece would be, as they put it, submitted for the subject's approval before publication. That is, he could, in a sense edit, censor, excise information. They said he did nothing to the article, but that - at least they acknowledged that agreement. But that agreement means they are in league with him. Now let's also say Rolling Stone right now is reeling from this rape story they had to retract about the University of Virginia. It's a nice way to change the subject for them.

MARTIN: NPR's David Folkenflik and Carrie Kahn, thanks to you both.


KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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