“If the Devil offers me an interview, I’d go down to hell to do it.”

The phrase became famous among Mexican journalists when legendary editor Julio Scherer used it to explain his interview with Ismael Zambada, a.k.a. “El Mayo,” one of the leaders of the Sinaloa drug cartel.

Scherer didn’t have to go quite that far to meet El Mayo, one of the most elusive cartel bosses in Mexico. In spring 2010, he traveled to an undisclosed location, probably in the state of Sinaloa or in neighboring Durango, to meet Zambada. Five years later, actor Sean Penn would travel a similar road, in the same area of the Western Sierra Madre, to meet and interview El Mayo’s far more famous (or infamous) associate, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

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Penn’s interview, published this past week in Rolling Stone the day after El Chapo was captured, caused an uproar in Mexico. That an American actor, along with Mexican TV star Kate del Castillo, were able to meet a fugitive Guzmán turned out to be humiliating to the Mexican government, which hadn’t managed to recapture him after he escaped from prison last year. In the United States, it sparked a debate on journalistic standards and ethics, but for Mexican journalists, the interview can be painful.

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For all its journalistic shortcomings — the fact that Penn gave Guzmán final approval over the story, his shallow questions and self-indulgent writing style — the story is an important document in the history of Mexico’s drug war. Although it says more about Penn than it does about El Chapo, and we have to get through 20 paragraphs of an irrelevant and self-centered personal journal before getting to the actual meeting, it still does tell us something about the drug lord. We have some glimpses of how he thinks, such as when he acknowledges that the narcotics trade will go on after he’s dead. And we see how how he thinks he can deceive the Mexican public, saying that he resorts to violence to defend himself but does not start trouble. From a man linked, directly or indirectly, to thousands of murders in Mexico, this is revealing.

The interview is also important, in a cynical way, for what it never bothers to acknowledge: The way El Chapo and his criminal organization, and its rivals, have dealt with the press.

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Penn might have thought his life, or at least his private parts, were in danger as he traveled the rugged terrain of the Sierra Madre. Unlike virtually every journalist covering drug cartels in Mexico, he had almost nothing to worry about.

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Last fall, as the Mexican Navy’s special operations unit was hunting El Chapo in the Sierra Madre (and, though we didn’t know it at the time, after Penn had met Guzmán), I was asked by some colleagues about the security precautions they should take while trying to cover the story in the small towns where commandos had carried out raids. The terrain was difficult to cross, and transportation was mostly in trucks on dirt roads. But the real danger was the armed gangs that formed El Chapo’s protective cocoon. The risk of bumping into the wrong people was too great. However, journalists traveled down there and managed to report on the raids at a great personal risk.

Did Penn run the same risk? Of course not. He was able to travel those roads protected by the very same people who made it dangerous for every other journalist to cover El Chapo’s hideouts. Penn was protected by the people who did not want other reporters nosing around. The fear of being targeted in a government raid that Penn mentioned in Rolling Stone also proved unfounded, after it was reported that Navy commandos held back their operations because the actors were still in the hot zone.

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Once he got to Guzmán’s hideout, Penn was treated to a feast of carne asada, tacos and tequila. He might not have known similar meals happen regularly in several Mexican cities when crime bosses want to meet with reporters. But these are not optional affairs — either the journalists attend willingly, or they’re taken at gunpoint. Once they’re there, reporters might find the same buffet that Penn shared with El Chapo. Something else is served besides tacos, though: a very specific threat about what journalists can and cannot publish or broadcast; a very thorough list of “do’s and don’ts” for reporters and editors who cover local crime; a very clear mention of the price to be paid if they fall out of line. Obviously, El Chapo would not subject a Hollywood movie star to such treatment, especially when he was seeking Penn and Del Castillo’s help to make a movie about himself. That just underscores how different Penn’s experience was from what actual journalists go through trying to cover the drug war in Mexico.

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In the last decade, at least 17 journalists have been killed or disappeared just in Sinaloa, Durango, Chihuahua and Sonora, the states where El Chapo was reported to have been hiding out since his first escape from prison in 2001, according to the International Center for Journalists and Freedom House. Many others who cover crime and drug trafficking have been kidnapped, beaten or threatened: Since 2000, dozens of Mexican journalists have been killed or made to vanish. It’s impossible to know which cases can be attributed to the Sinaloa cartel or to its rivals, but most of them are the direct or indirect product of a wave of violence and impunity unleashed by criminal bosses, including Penn’s chivalrous, flatulence-ignoring host El Chapo.

I have seen some cases closely. In the summer of 2010, Sinaloa cartel henchmen kidnapped three of my colleagues who were covering a prison riot in Gómez Palacio, in Durango, where the drug trade is controlled by El Chapo’s group. The reporters were later released. One year later, unidentified people set a car on fire in the main entrance to the offices of El Siglo de Torreón, the newspaper where I was editorial director at the time. The attack came a day after we published a story about the arrest of an important Sinaloa cartel boss in the region.

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Did El Chapo personally order these attacks? Probably not. But when he sits at the top of the organization, he bears responsibility for them, because he knows the “benefits” of instilling self-censorship in the press very well. From Penn and Rolling Stone, Guzmán obtained the same discretion criminal bosses routinely impose on Mexican reporters and news outlets. The difference is that Penn and Rolling Stone granted it after a nice meal in the Sierra Madre and a series of polite messages, while journalists in Mexico usually face the barrel of a gun.

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There is a self-dramatizing tone of false heroics in Penn’s narrative. If he wants to know the real danger in covering the cartels, maybe he should get a job at any paper in Sinaloa or Durango and work the crime beat on a daily basis, along with dozens of brave reporters and editors. There may be fewer charter flights involved, and he might even have to learn to use a laptop. While he wouldn’t have to submit his final draft for murderers to review, he’d live every day with the fear that one of his stories might provoke the wrath of some cartel boss somewhere. And suddenly, he’d be just another statistic.

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