CULIACAN, Mexico — The Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán story could hardly have seemed more unbelievable, with its multiple prison breaks, endless sewers and tunnels, outlandish sums of money and feverish manhunts. And then Sean Penn entered the story.
While Guzmán was the world’s most-wanted fugitive, dodging Mexican military operations and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration surveillance, he was secretly meeting with the Hollywood movie star in an undisclosed Mexican hideout and has now provided what appears to be the first public interview of his drug-running career, published Saturday by Rolling Stone.
Among the revelations in the article, Guzmán, who was captured Friday morning in his home state of Sinaloa, bragged to Penn about his prowess in the drug trade.
“I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world,” Guzmán said. “I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats.”
The Associated Press reported that a Mexican law enforcement official said the Penn meeting helped authorities locate Guzmán in Durango state in October.
Penn provides a lengthy account of how he met the elusive criminal. Penn tried to protect his communications using burner phones and encryption and anonymous email addresses. The meeting was brokered by the Mexican actress Kate del Castillo and took place at an undisclosed location in the Mexican mountains.
Penn reportedly spent seven hours with Guzmán and then did follow-up interviews by phone and video, including one posted on the Rolling Stone website of Guzmán in a paisley blue shirt speaking in front of a chain-link fence.
Guzmán, who in the past has denied participation in the drug trade and portrayed himself as a peasant farmer, spoke unapologetically and serenely about his lucrative trade.
Where he grew up, in the mountains of Sinaloa state, “the only way to have money to buy food, to survive, is to grow poppy, marijuana,” he said, and he began at a young age.
“It’s 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.”
Despite the deadly wars his Sinaloa cartel has fought with other gangs and authorities, Guzmán described himself as not a violent person.
“Look, all I do is defend myself, nothing more,” he said. “But do I start trouble? Never.”
The interview with Penn may have helped authorities finally recapture Guzmán, who was arrested Friday after a military raid on a house in the coastal city of Los Mochis. Guzmán fled in a sewer and carjacked a getaway vehicle but was stopped on the highway.
Mexico’s attorney general, Arely Gómez González said on Friday night that authorities zeroed in on Guzmán after movie producers and actresses made contact with him.
Penn met with Guzmán in early October, just before a military operation targeting Guzman in a ranch in the town of Pueblo Nuevo in Durango. Mexican authorities said Guzmán got away because a helicopter didn’t want to fire at him because he was fleeing with two women and a girl.
Guzmán wrote to Penn that eight helicopters pursued him and the “marines dispersed throughout the farms. The families had to escape and abandon their homes with the fear of being killed. We still don’t know how many dead in total.”
Guzmán said his injuries were “not like they said. I only hurt my leg a little bit.”
A senior Mexican official, who could not confirm whether Penn’s interview contributed to Guzmán’s arrest, described the interview with Penn as “an act of propaganda” that contributed to Guzmán’s outsized myth.
“Nothing that appears in the interview changes that he is a criminal who has assassinated many people and trafficked in drugs that resulted in the deaths of many people,” the official said.
The Penn interview was the latest twist in the wild “El Chapo” saga that included his dramatic arrest on Friday.
In the pre-dawn darkness, Mexican marines quietly surrounded a little white house in Los Mochis where the druglord was staying.
But the elusive Guzmán — who had escaped twice from federal prison — did it again. He vanished down an escape hatch and into the sewer. It wasn’t until he popped up four blocks away, stole a car, and sped out of town that Mexican authorities finally captured him on the highway and ended six months of national humiliation for letting the world’s top drug lord escape.
Guzmán was later flown to Mexico City and returned to Altiplano prison, the facility he escaped from in July.
Guzmán’s capture was celebrated by law enforcement officials in Washington because Guzmán runs a drug-trafficking network with vast international reach that has been dumping tons of cocaine and heroin into U.S. cities for years. But more than that, it represented a massive vindication, at least symbolically, for a Mexican government that has often seemed incapable of alleviating the brutal drug war violence that has left some 100,000 dead in the past decade.
After two prison escapes, many expect the Mexican government to extradite Guzmán to the United States. The Mexican attorney general’s office said in a statement Saturday that extradition procedures would begin. But that could take weeks or months, as the accusations against Guzmán must be reviewed and a judge needs to recommend a course of action.
“There are a series of things that could take months,” one official said.