World

Mexican drug lord 'El Chapo' sat for interview with Sean Penn

Joaquin Guzma Loera, the Mexican drug lord known as El Chapo, started out in business not long after turning 6, selling oranges and soft drinks. By 15, he said in an interview conducted in a jungle clearing by actor and director Sean Penn for Rolling Stone magazine, he had begun to grow marijuana and poppies because there was no other way for his impoverished family to survive.

El Chapo's attorney says he will fight extradition

The attorney representing the recently recaptured drug-lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman says national sovereignty "must be respected for the carrying out of justice."

Now, unapologetically, he said: "I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world. I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats."

Although his fortune, estimated at $US1 billion ($1.4 billion), has come with a trail of blood, he does not consider himself a violent man. "Look, all I do is defend myself, nothing more," he told Penn. "But do I start trouble? Never."

The New York Times has published a Rolling Stone photo of Sean Penn with El Chapo.
The New York Times has published a Rolling Stone photo of Sean Penn with El Chapo. Photo: Rolling Stone

The seven hours Guzman spent with Penn, and the follow-up interviews by phone and video, which began in October while he was on the run from Mexican and US authorities, marked another surreal turn in his long-running battle to evade capture. Guzman, one of the world's most wanted fugitives, who had twice escaped jail, was captured in his home state of Sinaloa in northwest Mexico on Friday after a gun battle with the authorities.

The story also marks a stark admission that he has operated a drug empire. Interviewed by a group of reporters in 1993 after a previous arrest, Guzman denied that he had engaged in drug dealing. "I'm a farmer," he said, listing his produce as corn and beans. He denied that he had used weapons or had a significant funds.

The interview with Rolling Stone, believed to be the first Guzman has given in decades, was scheduled to be published online on Saturday night (New York time).

The interviews were held in a jungle clearing atop a mountain at an undisclosed location in Mexico. Surrounded by more than 100 cartel troops and wearing a silk shirt and pressed black jeans, Guzman sat down to dinner with Penn and Kate del Castillo, an actress who once played a drug kingpin in a soap opera.

Mexican drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman is escorted by soldiers after being recaptured.
Mexican drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman is escorted by soldiers after being recaptured. Photo: AP

Even though Mexican troops attacked his hideout in the days after the meeting, necessitating a narrow escape, Guzman continued the interview by BlackBerry Messenger and in a video delivered by courier to the pair later.

The story provides new details on his dramatic escape from prison last summer, when he disappeared through a hole in his shower into a 1.6 kilometre-long tunnel that some engineers estimated took more than a year and at least $US1 million to build. The engineers, Penn wrote, had been flown to Germany for specialised training. A motorcycle on rails inside the tunnel had been modified to run in the low-oxygen environment, deep underground.

The shower area where authorities say drug lord Guzman, slipped into a tunnel to escape from the Altiplano maximum ...
The shower area where authorities say drug lord Guzman, slipped into a tunnel to escape from the Altiplano maximum security prison in July 2015. Photo: AP

Penn's account is likely to deepen the concern among the Mexican authorities already embarrassed by Guzman's multiple escapes, the months required to find him again and his status for some as something of a folk hero. Penn describes being waved through a military road checkpoint on his way to meet Guzman, which Penn suggested was because the soldiers recognized Guzman's son. Penn said he was also told, during a leg of the journey taken in a small plane equipped with a scrambling device for ground radar only, that the cartel was informed by an insider when the military deployed a high-altitude surveillance plane that might have spotted their movements.

In the end, the Mexican authorities said Friday night that Guzman had been caught partly because he had been planning a movie about his life and had contacted actors and producers, which had helped the authorities to track him down. Penn's story says that Guzman, inundated with Hollywood offers while in prison, had indeed elected to make his own movie. Del Castillo, whom he contacted through his lawyer after she posted supportive messages on Twitter, was the only person he trusted to shepherd the project, according to the story. Penn heard about the connection with del Castillo through a mutual acquaintance and asked if he might do an interview.

Guzman is escorted to a helicopter in handcuffs after being captured in Mexico City in February 2014.
Guzman is escorted to a helicopter in handcuffs after being captured in Mexico City in February 2014.  Photo: AP

It is not clear whether the contacts described in the story were the ones that led to Guzman's arrest. Penn wrote that he had gone to great lengths to maintain security while arranging to meet Guzman. He described labeling cheap "burner" phones, "one per contact, one per day, destroy, burn, buy, balancing levels of encryption, mirroring through Blackphones, anonymous email addresses, unsent messages accessed in draft form." Nevertheless, he wrote, "there is no question in my mind but that DEA and the Mexican government are tracking our movements," referring to the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

Penn and Guzman spoke for seven hours, the story reports, at a compound amid dense jungle. The topics of conversation turned in unexpected directions. At one stage, Penn brought up Donald Trump, the US Republican presidential candidate; there were some reports that Guzman had put a $US100 million bounty on Trump after he made comments offensive to Mexicans. "Ah! Mi amigo!" Guzman responded.

Sean Penn met the drug lord in October.
Sean Penn met the drug lord in October. Photo: Jason LaVeris

Guzman asked Penn whether people in America were interested in him and laughed when Penn told him that the Fusion channel was repeating a documentary on him, "Chasing El Chapo."

Guzman, Penn wrote, was also interested in the movie business and how it works. "He's unimpressed with its financial yield," wrote Penn, a two-time Academy Award winner for best actor. The "high side doesn't add up to the downside risk for him. He suggests to us that we consider switching our career paths to the oil business."

Mexico 'proud' of those who captured 'El Chapo'

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto praises the law enforcement officials who found and arrested the world's most wanted drug-lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

In a wider-ranging interview, for which Penn submitted questions that were put to Guzman on video by one of his associates, he detailed his childhood and said he had tried drugs during his life but had never been an addict and had not touched them for 20 years. He said that he was happy to be free and that the pressure of evading the authorities was normal for him.

Pushed on the morality of his business, he said it was a reality "that drugs destroy. Unfortunately, as I said, 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." If he disappeared, he said, it would make no difference to the drug business anyway.

Asked about the violence attached to his work, he said in part it happened "because already some people already grow up with problems, and there is some envy and they have information against someone else. That is what creates violence."

Guzman, Penn said, was familiar with the final days of Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug boss who had previously been the world's most notorious and who died in a shootout with the authorities. How, he asked, did Guzman see his last days? "I know one day I will die," he said. "I hope it's of natural causes."

The New York Times