By Lizbeth Diaz and Frank Jack Daniel
A clandestine meeting that Hollywood star Sean Penn orchestrated with Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman in a jungle hideout late last year helped the Mexican government catch the world’s most-wanted drug lord, sources said.
Guzman, the infamous boss of the Sinaloa drug cartel, was arrested in northwestern Mexico on Friday morning and sent back to the prison he broke out of in July through a mile-long tunnel that led straight into his cell. It was his second prison break.
To avoid a repeat of that humiliation, Mexico’s government says it aims to hand Guzman over to U.S. justice as soon as possible.
Penn’s rare access to Guzman in October was assisted by Mexican actress Kate del Castillo. They were driven some of the way to the hideout by Guzman’s son, who the Hollywood star says was waved on by soldiers when they apparently recognized him.
Another leg of the day-long trip through central Mexico to meet Guzman was on a light aircraft allegedly fitted with equipment to evade radar detection, Penn said in a story published in Rolling Stone magazine on Saturday.
Penn said in the article that he was sure the Mexican government and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration were tracking him.
Senior Mexican government sources said they were indeed aware of the October meeting and monitored his movements.
That helped lead troops days later to a ranch where Guzman was staying, one of the sources said. Mexican forces used helicopter gunships to attack Guzman’s ranch during a siege that lasted days.
The kingpin narrowly escaped, with what he told Del Castillo was a minor leg injury, but the raid in the northern state of Durango was a major breakthrough in the manhunt.
Guzman was finally recaptured on Friday in the northern city of Los Mochis after a showdown fit for the silver screen.
In a pre-dawn attack by Mexican marines who killed five of his henchmen, the portly capo survived by squeezing through a secret tunnel into the city’s grimy storm drains, only to pop out of a manhole near a Pollo Feliz restaurant hours later.
Leaving a mud-caked automatic rifle behind, he hijacked two cars before police blocked the highway as he sped out of town. Once detained, they held him at a seedy motel until backup arrived.
Mexican Attorney General Arely Gomez on Friday said that the drug boss’s yearning for movie fame had helped bring him down.
Penn’s seven-hour encounter with Guzman came about after Guzman became interested in making a biopic when he was inundated with requests from U.S. movie studios following his 2014 capture, the film star said.
In Los Mochis, the farming town where Guzman’s freedom ended, local resident Arturo Liera, 27, said he may have hoped to make a film with Penn.
“A film of that magnitude with such a big star, narrated by him and with Hollywood actors could have been the biggest blockbuster ever, more than ‘Star Wars,'” Liera said.
In the article, Penn said the conversation over tequila and food turned to profit margins in the movie world. The trafficker was “unimpressed” and thought oil was a better prospect.
Guzman’s lawyer did approach Del Castillo about the possibility of making a film, but the project was dropped in favor of a magazine interview, Penn said. He clarified that he only met Guzman for the magazine piece.
In the Sinaloan state capital of Culiacan, where many revere Guzman as a folk hero, some were surprised to hear that he was looking to have a biopic made about his life.
“Vanity kills, and more so in his case,” said Exiquiel Delgado, 60, who owns a souvenir kiosk near Culiacan’s cathedral. “A man with money but little culture loses his way.”
Penn’s encounter was made possible because Guzman struck up an unlikely friendship with Del Castillo, who played a Mexican drug queen in a well-known TV soap. The saga adds a new twist to the long and larger-than-life career of Guzman, whose nickname “Chapo” means “Shorty.”
Penn unsuccessfully tried to set up a formal follow-up interview. Instead, as Mexican security forces closed in on Guzman, Penn and Del Castillo persuaded him to film a 17-minute tape answering prewritten questions and ship them the footage.
The video clips show the drug lord in a colorful shirt at a different hideout, musing about his contribution to the narcotics trade. Rolling Stone called it the drug lord’s first interview outside an interrogation.
“I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world. I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats,” he told Penn during their encounter.
A senior Obama administration official told television news shows on Sunday morning that Guzman’s boasting about his heroin empire in the interview was “maddening.”
“One thing I will tell you is that this braggadocious action about how much heroin he sends around the world, including the United States, is maddening,” White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“We see a heroin epidemic, an opioid addiction epidemic, in this country,” McDonough said. “We’re going to stay on top of this with our Mexican counterparts until we get that back in the box. But El Chapo’s behind bars – that’s where he should stay.”
McDonough would not comment on any repercussions for Penn.
(Additional reporting by Dave Graham, Anahi Rama and Jesus Bustamente in Los Mochis, Michael O’Boyle in Culiacan and Simon Gardner and Ana Isabel Martinez in Mexico City; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel and Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Kieran Murray and Cynthia Osterman)