Drug kingpin Joaquin Guzman, the billionaire fugitive captured in a shootout Friday in Mexico, met with actor Sean Penn for a secret interview for Rolling Stone magazine in the months before his capture.
The article, written by Penn and published Saturday night, reveals that the actor traveled to Mexico to interview Guzman, widely known as El Chapo, in October, while the drug lord was on the run from Mexican authorities after escaping prison.
The seven-hour interview is considered to be the first Guzman has conducted in decades. The actor, accompanied by Mexican soap drama actress Kate del Castillo, who helped broker the meeting, met with Guzman at an undisclosed jungle location in Mexico, surrounded by dozens of cartel guards.
Guzman told Penn that he resorted to the drug trade because of lack of job opportunities in his native state of Sinaloa. “Where I grew up there was no other way, and there still isn't a way to survive, no way to work in our economy to be able to make a living,” he said.
The drug lord told of how his mother had to sell bread to support the family, while Guzman, as a child, took care of his grandmother's cattle and chopped wood, earning money by selling oranges, soft drinks and candy.
By the time he was a teenager, he told Penn, "the only way to have money to buy food, to survive, is to grow poppy, marijuana, and at that age, I began to grow it, to cultivate it and to sell it."
Guzman said that despite his reputation as a murderous drug kingpin, he does not consider himself a violent man.
“Look, all I do is defend myself, nothing more,” he said. “But do I start trouble? Never.”
When Penn asked him about the destructive effects of drugs, Guzman didn't deny it. "It's a reality that drugs destroy," he said.
But he added: "If there was no consumption, there would be no sales."
Penn preceded the article with his own moral reflections about traveling to interview the head of a criminal organization that has dealt liberally in both drugs and murder.
"I take no pride in keeping secrets that may be perceived as protecting criminals," the actor wrote, and confessed that he had fears for his own safety throughout his lengthy journey--by charter plane from Los Angeles, then by SUV traveling at 100 mph, a single-engine plane taking off from a dirt strip, and finally a long passage through the jungle--to rendezvous with Guzman.
He echoed Guzman in questioning the responsibility of American consumers, and also criticized this country's "puritanical and prosecutorial culture" in the failed war on drugs.
"Not since Osama bin Laden has the pursuit of a fugitive so occupied the public imagination," Penn wrote. "But unlike bin Laden, ... with the world's most wanted drug lord, are we, the American public, not indeed complicit in what we demonize?
"We are the consumers, and as such, we are complicit in every corruption of an institution's ability to protect the quality of life for citizens of Mexico and the United States that comes from our insatiable appetite for illicit narcotics."
The article's publication follows news that Guzman had been in talks to produce a movie about his life, and authorities were able to zero in on his whereabouts through his contacts with his lawyers and producers.
Indeed, Mexican armed forces swooped in to the area where the interview had occurred not long after, touching off a series of raids and gunfights--but Guzman escaped.
A Mexican law enforcement official told the Associated Press on Saturday that it was the Penn interview that led authorities to the drug kingpin.
Penn writes that after Guzman's most recent escape from prison, the drug lord's attorneys were overwhelmed by overtures from Hollywood studios to produce a movie based on his life. Guzman, however, decided to produce his own, insisting that Del Castillo, who had previously expressed support on Twitter, be involved. Penn learned of Del Castillo's involvement and suggested an interview.
In one question, Penn mentions the violent death of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Penn asked: “How do you see your final days with respect to this business?”
“I know one day I will die,” Guzman said. “I hope it's of natural causes.”