El Chapo caught through interview with Sean Penn, according to Mexican officials.

El Chapo caught through interview with Sean Penn, according to Mexican officials.

A Mexican law enforcement official says recaptured drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s secret interview with actor Sean Penn helped authorities locate his whereabouts. [Associated Press]

IN A MOST improbable tale, Sean Penn‘s adventures in the dangerous underground of Mexico’s drug cartels was spurred on by Mexican film and TV star Kate del Castillo. As Penn tells it, “a lawyer representing El Chapo Guzmán contacted Kate,” which began it all, way back in 2012.

From Penn’s Rolling Stone piece

I take no pride in keeping secrets that may be perceived as protecting criminals, nor do I have any gloating arrogance at posing for selfies with unknowing security men. But I’m in my rhythm. Everything I say to everyone must be true. As true as it is compartmentalized. The trust that El Chapo had extended to us was not to be fucked with. This will be the first interview El Chapo had ever granted outside an interrogation room, leaving me no precedent by which to measure the hazards. I’d seen plenty of video and graphic photography of those beheaded, exploded, dismembered or bullet-riddled innocents, activists, courageous journalists and cartel enemies alike. I was highly aware of committed DEA and other law-enforcement officers and soldiers, both Mexican and American, who had lost their lives executing the policies of the War on Drugs. The families decimated, and institutions corrupted.

I took some comfort in a unique aspect of El Chapo’s reputation among the heads of drug cartels in Mexico: that, unlike many of his counterparts who engage in gratuitous kidnapping and murder, El Chapo is a businessman first, and only resorts to violence when he deems it advantageous to himself or his business interests. It was on the strength of the Sinaloa cartel’s seemingly more calculated strategies (a cartel whose famous face is El Chapo, but also includes the co-leadership of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada) that Sinaloa had become dominant among Mexico’s criminal syndicates, extending far beyond the rural northwestern state, with significant inroads to all principal border areas between the United States and Mexico – Juarez, Mexicali, Tijuana, and reaching as far as Los Cabos.

El Chapo is fascinated by the film industry, movies, the return on investment. He was interested in his own movie about his life.

Ego. It gets us every time.

The author and then-fugitive El Chapo Guzmán, on October 2nd. The photo was taken for verification purposes. After a long dinner and conversation, Chapo granted Penn's request for a formal interview. Courtesy of Sean Penn

The author and then-fugitive El Chapo Guzmán, on October 2nd. The photo was taken for verification purposes. After a long dinner and conversation, Chapo granted Penn’s request for a formal interview. Courtesy of Sean Penn

As to the journalism, Rolling Stone once again finds itself on the receiving end of some harsh criticism from peers. However, this is the 21st century and if you read the New York Times dissection of what happened during editing I don’t see how any publisher could have resisted the story Sean Penn risked his life to get.

As for giving Mr. Guzmán final approval over the article, Mr. Wenner said: “I don’t think it was a meaningful thing in the first place. We have let people in the past approve their quotes in interviews.”

Mr. Guzmán, he said, did not speak English and seemed to have little interest in editing Mr. Penn’s work. “In this case, it was a small thing to do in exchange for what we got,” Mr. Wenner said.

Still, critics of Rolling Stone remain unconvinced. Andrew Seaman, the chair of the ethics committee for the Society of Professional Journalists, wrote in a blog post that “allowing any source control over a story’s content is inexcusable.”

The practice of pre-approval, he said, “discredits the entire story — whether the subject requests changes or not. The writer, who in this case is an actor and activist, may write the story in a more favorable light and omit unflattering facts in an attempt to not to be rejected.”

Mr. Coll agreed that the offer of preapproval was wrong. But, he said, “It’s hard to judge what Rolling Stone was thinking since apparently the veto wasn’t exercised, freeing the magazine of any dilemma.”

This piece has been updated.