Sean Penn’s El Chapo interview ‘just wrong,’ contends ‘Cartel’ author Don Winslow

Don Winslow

Writer Don Winslow, whose “The Cartel” was about an “El Chapo"-like character, said he thinks Sean Penn’s interview with the drug kingpin is “just wrong.”

(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Don Winslow, whose bestselling novel “The Cartel” was partially inspired by Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, has some words for would-be journalist Sean Penn. And they’re not kind ones.

In an article for Deadline, the author slammed Penn, who interviewed Guzmán for a widely mocked piece in Rolling Stone.

Penn’s article was “a brutally simplistic and unfortunately sympathetic portrait of a mass murderer,” Winslow writes. “Penn thought he had scored a journalistic coup – instead his interview was the by-product of Guzmán’s infatuation with a soap-opera actress ... and told the exact story that Guzmán wanted – with line by line editorial approval courtesy of Penn and Rolling Stone.”

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Guzmán, the head of the Sinaloa drug cartel, escaped from a Mexican prison last year in a dramatic exit that included an underground tunnel, rails and a special motorcycle. He was recaptured earlier this year after a shootout. Penn interviewed the drug lord in October, while he was still on the run.

Penn might not disagree with Winslow’s harsh assessment. In an interview with PBS host Charlie Rose last week, the actor and activist admitted, “My article has failed.”

“I have a terrible regret,” Penn said. “I have a regret that the entire discussion about this article ignores its purpose, which was to try to contribute this discussion about the policy in the war on drugs." 

Winslow disputed this. "[I]n an article of 10,500 words, the phrase ‘war on drugs’ appears three times,” he wrote. “It was not the purpose or focus of Penn’s horribly misguided piece.”


“The Cartel,” Winslow’s novel partially inspired by Guzmán, takes a graphic look at the violence associated with drug gangs. Ridley Scott is slated to direct a film adaptation of the novel.

Winslow heavily criticized Penn for not asking Guzmán about his crimes. “I would like to have heard about the people on [Guzmán’s] payroll who dissolved their victims’ bodies in acid, about the decapitations and mutilations, about the blood-soaked bodies displayed in public places as intimidation and propaganda,” he writes. “Those questions might have wiped the smile off Guzmán’s face, which Penn reported he had for over seven hours during their interview.”

In addition to failing to ask tough questions, Penn soft-pedaled Guzmán’s reputation for violence, Winslow claims. "[W]e hear about how nice Guzmán’s shirt is, how he comes across as a bashful teenager, that he loves his children (including, ostensibly, the son who was killed when he followed his father into the drug trade), that his children love him,” he wrote. “Penn was clearly so enamored of his subject and the article was further compromised by topics excluded under the agreement and questions that were never asked.”

"[Penn] should apologize and stop trying to explain it,” Winslow concluded. “Sometimes wrong is just wrong.”


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Why Sean Penn says his ‘El Chapo’ interview failed and he has a ‘terrible regret’


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