Op-Ed

El Chapo, Sean Penn and press freedom

Clarence Page
Clarence Page

There’s a lot that is worth criticizing about actor Sean Penn’s rambling Rolling Stone article about his friendly meeting with cutthroat fugitive drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

But if Guzman’s desire to be in the movies led to the recapture of this hemisphere’s biggest trafficker of heroin, cocaine and other illicit commodities, justice has been served.

That, at least, is how Mexican authorities are spinning the story, hoping everyone will stop asking how Guzman escaped their custody in the first place — twice.

Penn’s interview led police to the drug lord’s hiding place, an unnamed official told Associated Press after the magazine published Penn’s story Saturday.

If so, that could make a nice twist for the biographical movie that Guzman has been hoping someone will make about his life. But unfortunately it also sounds like the sort of narrative that Mexican officials would say in order to save face.

Of all the corruption scandals and security lapses that have tarnished Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto’s record of reforms last year, the most embarrassing was the July prison escape of El Chapo (“Shorty”).

I’m not surprised that lying low in his mountain retreat wasn’t good enough for Guzman. He wants to be in the movies like numerous other gangsters. He sent a bushel of roses to Mexican soap opera and movie star Kate del Castillo, a naturalized American citizen, and pitched the movie idea to her. She helped him to meet Penn.

Maybe Guzman saw the award-winning Netflix series Narcos, based on the late Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar and thought, hey, I can top that.

Guzman in the past decade or so has replaced Escobar as the most famous drug kingpin in the planet. That’s a story worthy of the big screen and Guzman wanted the world to know it.

After all, federal prosecutors in at last six U.S. cities say El Chapo is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people. Besides his own rivals whose executions he ordered, there are gangbangers killed in drug turf wars and innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire.

Thousands more lives have been ruined by the drugs he has trafficked. The biggest portion reportedly has flowed through Chicago, where the 95-year-old nonprofit Chicago Crime Commission has named him their first Public Enemy No. 1 since Al Capone.

No wonder Penn, having interviewed Cuban President Raul Castro and the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, was eager to add Guzman to his collection of celebrity autocrat interviews.

The result is a remarkable piece of journalism in that Penn actually manages to make his subject, the world’s most famous drug lord, sound boring. That’s partly because Penn tells you a lot more about himself than about his subject.

Worse, he lobs softball questions that delicately avoid zeroing in on, say, drugs, murders, kidnappings, torture and other activities that make El Chapo a menace to society.

Sample: “Do you consider yourself a violent person?”

Answer: “No, sir.”

That’s it. Penn and Rolling Stone also agreed in advance to let Guzman see the story before it ran. That’s a major taboo in fundamental journalism ethics. Journos sometimes will read someone’s quotes back to them in order to check for accuracy, when time allows, but not the entire story.

Guzman didn’t ask for changes. He apparently didn’t have to. Maybe Penn decided to be super-nice because somebody told him how dangerous it can be to practice journalism in Mexico.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, on whose board I sit, has confirmed 32 journalists murdered in Mexico since 1992 when CPJ was founded. Three more were killed while on dangerous assignments. There are other journalist deaths that could not be confirmed as media work-related, especially when Mexican authorities tend to steer press freedom investigators away from that motive.

Many of those deaths, as well as beatings and other intimidation, have occurred in Sinaloa, Guzman’s home state, where the prominent Noroeste newspaper blamed top state officials for more than 60 attacks on the paper since 2010.

If the presence of a famous Oscar-winning star like Penn can bring some attention to the hazards faced by real journalists in Mexico, his El Chapo adventure may do some good. Otherwise, he’s like Guzman, just another guy who wants to be in movies.

Reach Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.

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