Whatever actor Sean Penn’s cloak-and-dagger interview with Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán is — vanity project, movie treatment, friendly chat between celebrity and sociopath — treating it as real journalism would be a mistake.
Real journalism about the Mexican drug cartels can get you killed. Just ask the families and colleagues of the 32 reporters and photographers murdered and another 30 who have disappeared since 1992 in Mexico, the vast majority while covering crime and corruption.
Those reporters didn’t settle for drinks with Guzmán, pose for photos, then jet home to plan their next bit of global activism. And the price they paid in pursuit of the whole truth is worth noting, if only to put Penn’s “scoop” into context.
In his 10,000-word piece in Rolling Stone magazine — published online Saturday after Guzmán was recaptured in a shootout Jan. 8 — the actor navel-gazed about interviewing the leader of a bloody criminal gang, bragged about fearing for his own safety while traveling to the secret rendezvous and pontificated about the failed war on drugs and Americans’ complicity.
He also listened to Guzmán’s story, and shared it; that was interesting and useful. But real reportage would have challenged Guzmán’s excuses for his barbaric behavior, and included rebuttal from law enforcement. (Indeed, Guzmán was allowed to review the article before publication, which, among journalists, makes it more of a press release.)
“Look, all I do is defend myself, nothing more,” the man who claimed to be the world’s No. 1 drug trafficker told his credulous interviewer. “But do I start trouble? Never.”
Tell that to the relatives of his dozens, if not hundreds, of victims. Somehow, in all his words, Penn managed not to include their voices, or of those who live in the drug war zone where he wrote that Guzmán is a “Robin Hood-like figure.”
Guzmán is probably used to such gentle treatment with corruption rampant in Mexico’s justice system. He has twice escaped a “top security” prison, in 2014 and again last July. This time, Mexican authorities may extradite him to the U.S., where he faces drug trafficking, kidnapping and murder charges. Unfortunately, that process could take a year or more.
If and when that happens, readers should seek out the reports from the courtroom, where they’ll learn the rest of the story, and perhaps learn why, for reporters who aren’t famous actors, the job is so dangerous.