Sean Penn, Intelligence Dangle

The press is outraged that Sean Penn gave Chapo Guzmán editorial veto over the Rolling Stone story he published about their interview.

Disclosure: Some names have had
 to be changed, locations not named, and an understanding was brokered with the subject that this piece would be submitted for the subject’s approval before publication. The subject did not ask for any changes.

Though the press is outraged based on the assumption that what they’re reading is journalism. Note that Penn (or whoever wrote this paragraph) didn’t name Chapo? Why should we assume “the subject” is Guzmán and not some American three letter agency that set up this meeting?

Because it sure looks like the latter provides a better explanation for this story. It reads better as retroactive cover, published to protect Penn and the woman who, he explains, set up the meeting between him and Guzmán, Kate del Castillo, than it does as any real journalism.

Consider these details. Two men whose real names Penn doesn’t provide — one of whom Penn met with amid Enrique Peña Nieto’s security forces at a hotel in New York just before they made the final decision to take this trip — set up the meeting, playing both the role of Hollywood producer and key broker. The one he met in EPN’s hotel, Espinoza (“espinosa” translates as “spiny”), wears a “surgical corset” for his back (get it? spiny?) that somehow gets through Chapo’s extensive security unchecked.

Espinoza had recently undergone back surgery. He stretched, readjusted his surgical corset, exposing it. It dawns on me that one of our greeters might mistake the corset for a device that contains a wire, a chip, a tracker. With all their eyes on him, Espinoza methodically adjusts the Velcro toward his belly, slowly looks up, sharing his trademark smile with the suspicious eyes around him. Then, “Cirugia de espalda [back surgery],” he says. Situation defused.

Right after arriving in Chapo’s presence on what would be October 2, 2015, Espinoza goes by himself to a bungalow, purportedly to take a nap. Penn and his party stay overnight with the cartel boss. Immediately upon their departure, according to Penn’s sources, who apparently have better information than all the reporters who work this beat did last October, Mexican authorities started a siege on Chapo that was publicly explained by claiming they had geolocated the cell phone of one of his men but isn’t that a remarkable coinkydink that it actually happened immediately after Espinoza and his spiny back device showed up?

Note carefully how Penn describes searching his phone immediately after being reunited with it on what would be October 4 and not yet knowing about the siege that was going on.

In the backseat, my L.A.-based assistant had left a manila envelope with my cellphone in it. I turn on the phone to the explosion of a two-day backlog of e-mails and text messages. Ignoring them, I hit my browser for updates. What I didn’t know, and what was not yet being reported, was that from the time the weather cleared, a military siege on Sinaloa was imminent.


According to media reports that didn’t come until days later [ed: here are two examples], a cellphone among his crew had been tracked. From the time the military and the DEA moved in on them, the reports of what happened are conflicted. A source familiar with the cartel informed me on October 3rd that the initial siege had begun. That source and another on the ground in Sinaloa reported that over the next several days, two military helicopters were shot down and Mexican marine ground troops laid siege to several ranch properties.


El Chapo’s own account would later be shared with me, through a BBM exchange he had with Kate. “On October 6th, there was an operation….Two helicopters and 6 BlackHawks began a confrontation upon their arrival. 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.” When asked about the reports of his own injuries, Chapo responded, “Not like they said. I only hurt my leg a little bit.” [my emphasis]

What curious grammar describing Penn’s source’s remarkable knowledge. “A source familiar with the cartel informed me on October 3rd that the initial siege had begun.” Did his source inform him on October 3rd, as this passage literally claims? (The second facilitator in the story, whom Penn calls El Alto, stuck around after they emerged from the jungle on October 3.) The muddled structure of this passage would certainly allow for that, or it might mean his source informed him that on October 3 the siege began.

Curiously, when Penn provided his bona fides to Chapo — which for the cartel boss, largely rested on the actor’s relationship with Hugo Chávez — he didn’t mention that he had a relationship with people who would be privy to otherwise unavailable information about what really went down in October, though he did admit he has “many relationships inside the United States government.”

I tell him, up front, that I had a family member who worked with the Drug Enforcement Agency, that through my work in Haiti (I’m CEO of J/P HRO, a nongovernmental organization based in Port-au-Prince) I had many relationships inside the United States government. I assure him that those relationships were by no means related to my interest in him.

Elsewhere in the story Penn claims he is telling the truth, but keeping information compartmentalized.

I take no pride in keeping secrets that may be perceived as protecting criminals, nor do I have any gloating arrogance at posing for selfies with unknowing security men. But I’m in my rhythm. Everything I say to everyone must be true. As true as it is compartmentalized.

Perhaps the most interesting detail is that when Chapo asked Penn to come back in 8 days for a return visit that never took place, Penn responded by asking for a photo — for Rolling Stone. Except that he arranged it so that it would be usable for facial recognition.

I say I can. I ask to take a photograph together so that I could verify to my editors at Rolling Stone that the planned meeting had taken place.


I explain that, for authentication purposes, it would be best if we are shaking hands, looking into the camera, but not smiling. He obliges. The picture is taken on Alfredo’s cellphone. It would be sent to me at a later date.

Who knows? Maybe Rolling Stone uses sophisticated facial recognition software in the wake of their UVA rape story disaster?

What’s perhaps funniest is this passage, which has attracted the most attention (and figures prominently in the NYT’s A1 story on Penn’s tale, which actually appeared before the tale itself in Rolling Stone and isn’t behind NYT’s paywall).

My head is swimming, labeling TracPhones (burners), one per contact, one per day, destroy, burn, buy, balancing levels of encryption, mirroring through Blackphones, anonymous e-mail addresses, unsent messages accessed in draft form. It’s a clandestine horror show for the single most technologically illiterate man left standing.

While Penn describes his discussions with Kate as being encrypted, Kate is the one who conducted negotiations with Chapo’s people, using a blackberry. Moreover, what Penn describes here doesn’t seem to match what he describes of communications with the cartel. So who was he using this operational security with?

Then there are the parts of the story that don’t cohere, not because Penn is an egotistical buffoon, but because they simply don’t make sense. Remember, the story is that Chapo is so narcissistic that he compromised his considerable operational security to reach out to some film people.

Penn is a film person, but as was decided before Chapo escaped from prison, there was no way they were going to be able to make a film (though somehow Penn managed to bring a knapsack with him to meet the drug lord, but it didn’t even contain a pen or paper). So instead the idea was to write a magazine article.

When Chapo’s men don’t show up to pick up Penn after 8 days (the siege in Sinaloa was still going strong), Penn kept pushing Kate to recontact Chapo under the premise that someone in his camp would translate Penn’s English language questions (for some reason Kate, who translated for Penn when he was in Mexico, didn’t translate them…), and Chapo would film himself answering them.

Penn attributes the delay to Chapo Guzmán’s humility (!!!!!), rather than what had to have been legitimate concern that this lefty actor had visited immediately before a massive manhunt started in October.

Without being present, I could neither control the questioning nor prod for elaborations to his responses. In addition, every question sent first had to be translated into Spanish. Remarkably, while Chapo has access to hundreds of soldiers and associates at all times, apparently not one speaks English.

At the end of each day that passed without receipt of the video, Kate would reassure me that it was only one more day away. But each night, El Chapo contacted her with more delays and apparent doubts. Not about my inquiries, but seemingly about how to make a tape of himself. “Kate, let me get this straight. The guy runs a multibillion-dollar business with a network of at least 50 countries, and there’s not one fucker down there in the jungle with him who speaks a word of friggin’ English? Now tonight, you’re telling me his BBM went on the blink, that he’s got hardly any access to a goddamn computer?! Are you saying he doesn’t have the technical capability to make a self-video and smuggle it into the United States?”

I ask myself, How in the fuck does anyone run a business that way?! I go Full-Trump-Gringo on Kate, battering her daily by phone, text and encrypted email. In the end, the delay had nothing to do with technical incompetence. Big surprise. Whatever villainy is attributable to this man, and his indisputable street genius, he is also a humble, rural Mexican, whose perception of his place in the world offers a window into an extraordinary riddle of cultural disparity. It became evident that the peasant-farmer-turned-billionaire-drug-lord seemed to be overwhelmed and somewhat bewildered at the notion that he may be of interest to the world beyond the mountains. And the day-after-day delays might reveal an insecurity in him, like an awkward teenager bashful to go unguided before the camera. Or had all of this been an orchestrated performance?

Right. Chapo Guzmán is bashful, and bewildered that he might be of interest to the entire world. And as it turns out the answers to the question — which Rolling Stone published as a verbatim transcription — are less insightful than details (such as that Chapo drew fake pesos when he was a kid) Penn must have gotten during the hours he spent with the drug lord in October. Penn had his story, but insisted on this video (remember, they had decided months earlier they weren’t doing an actual film!) so someone in Chapo’s camp would once again send video to him.

In short, it’s a load of horse shit that is entirely inconsistent with Chapo’s assent to do the meeting in the first place.

But it makes a nice cover story, even if it doesn’t amount to journalism. And journalists are so obsessed with the ethics of this non-journalism they’re not noticing all the other details that don’t make sense.

Update: There’s something else stupid about assuming Rolling Stone let Chapo approve this.

He’s in prison!

So either, they had the article ready to go, but held it until such a time he got caught (as if they knew he was about to be caught). Or they went to Altiplano, where Chapo is being held, to ask for his approval.

Or, they got approval from someone else entirely.

Update: The Rolling Stone spoke with NYT (you know, the newspaper that reported on RS’ story before they did) to defend their article. They do seem to suggest Chapo is the one who got final say.

As for giving Mr. Guzmán final approval over the article, Mr. Wenner said: “I don’t think it was a meaningful thing in the first place. We have let people in the past approve their quotes in interviews.”

Mr. Guzmán, he said, did not speak English and seemed to have little interest in editing Mr. Penn’s work. “In this case, it was a small thing to do in exchange for what we got,” Mr. Wenner said.

Logistically, that would be made possibly by RS sitting on the story several weeks.

A lawyer for the magazine, and its managing editor, Jason Fine, were eventually brought in to help with the editing process. Work on the article was completed about two weeks ago, Mr. Wenner said, but because of Rolling Stone’s production cycle, those involved were subjected to an excruciating wait for the next issue, during which time Mr. Guzmán was captured.

So we’re to believe the timing here was just an unbelievable coinkydink. And that it took RS from Thanksgiving, when — according to the new details in NYT — Penn got his video, until January, so almost as long to edit as it took to convince a top drug lord to shoot a video of himself. There were 3 issues of RS released between the time Penn would have gotten that video and the release it will go in. Though of course, if they had given Chapo final say, it would mean they contacted him just before Mexico closed in. The story spins out of control every time you try to make it make sense.

But the funniest part of the story is this: RS fact-checked it by conducting interviews with eyewitnesses.

Of Mr. Penn’s article, which was subject to follow-up interviews with eyewitnesses for fact-checking, Mr. Wenner said, “It’s not a vindication but a restatement of how good we are, how strong we are.”

Unless RS was interviewing Chapo’s men, again (as they were being rounded up), then those eyewitnesses would be limited to del Castillo or … Spiny and El Alto, whose names RS hasn’t even shared.

36 replies
  1. rosalind says:

    the FOIA terrorist showed me the Penn/Chapo tweets last night as we sat waiting for the kickass Patti Smith show to start. me: hey, Penn’s the gov’ts new CI!

  2. bmaz says:

    Valiant attempt to deconstruct a story that can’t be because it is full of shit. Which you demonstrate. But it doesn’t add up on even a larger scale in that the Sinaloans just are not this sloppy. Seriously, you have got to be kidding me. The whole thing is a mask, but not just on the Penn/Govt side, but Chapo too. The only thing that give me even a second of pause in that thought is the almost immediate airing by the Mexican Govt that they would be willing to extradite. That is not something Chapo would want. Still…..

    • emptywheel says:

      Remember, too, the Mexicans were saying they misstated how they found Guzman at first.

      So yeah, I’d definitely entertain there being another level of BS here. Also that Alonzo, the guy talking to Kate, had flipped.

  3. arbusto says:

    Wonder if Penn or, take your pick, CIA, DEA, FBI, DIA, NSA or any combination, read Mendez Canadian Caper for a nice sting operation. I guess Guzman, being a poor illiterate peon wouldn’t have read the book and he and his group wouldn’t figure he was being played

    • bmaz says:

      Do not underestimate the capabilities of the Sinaloans. That is a huge mistake. They are far from illiterate, and very tech savvy. The narrative you read in the press is total shit.

  4. Anonymous Coward says:

    – The scheduled return visit was probably a “maybe they’ll bite” to Chapo, hoping they would pin him to a time and date, and a rough idea of location to hunt-seek inside. Sometimes you get lucky, right?

    – Note Penn’s highlighting brand types (Blackberry, TracPhone), so reducing the search space an intelligence operation would need to explore

    – If you’re trying not to stand out, why wear a watch that clearly inspires so much awe in Penn? One of the things to look for, even if you don’t get a facial match because of disguise

    – Speaking of which, facial matches are useful for population data, but what they really would have wanted was identity confirmation, which means a side shot to look at his ears would have been a lot more useful. Sarcasm: Didn’t Penn’s briefing stress that sufficiently?

    – Video and photos. Assuming the cartel is savvy enough to wipe the metadata, did they actually get it all, including stego? What about breaking it up into pieces when sending it over any network connection, rather than wagging a tail through the byte-count?

    – How many people are in Chapo’s entourage? That alone leaves a signature, traces. As does the network usage (if nothing else, the mobile devices, which are waving a flag to beg attention with crypto). There are breadcrumbs to follow, even if checkpoints are compromised

    – Sarcasm: The sheer poetry of Penn’s words overtake me. He should publish a small volume of odes to the magnificent penis he possesses and could have had stuffed down his own throat

    • emptywheel says:

      Good point about the ear. That would have been an even weirder request!

      As to the 8 days? According to the story Chapo suggested it, not Penn.

  5. sdfg says:

    Haven’t been to this website in over a year. I stopped showing up due to the fact that Marcy had developed this odd little habit of working an unnecessary obscenity into every single article that she writes. I was recommended this article by a friend, so I decided to give it a read. And sure as can be, Marcy has managed to completely unnecessarily work the words “horse shit” into an otherwise fine article.

    Listen. When most people (men) do this, they come off as desperate, immature, and unprofessional. Marcy, for whatever reason, when you do it, it just comes off as low-class white trash. And it has driven away at least one formerly loyal reader. Take that for whatever it’s worth.

    God bless.

    • bmaz says:

      This may be the most curious comment I have ever seen; I cannot imagine being so tender that you would rather be less informed on critical subjects of the day rather than let common speech and phrasing pass by your eyes.

    • Watapama says:

      Pepe E sent me here and I’m glad he did, interesting work and proof that women who use profanity possess superior IQ’s.
      Keep up the great work and don’t let the fuckers get you down….

  6. haydukez says:

    Man, the reverie you’ve inspired with the reminder of all the elaborate distinctions made between bullsh*t and horsesh*t. Deep white trash philosophy on the nature of biopower’s consensus fabrications.

  7. skeptic says:

    A magazine article is a curious format, especially since Seymour Hersh’s Article alleging a Cover-Up in the Bin Laden Hunt, embarrassing the Obama administration who couldn’t prove otherwise. A fantastical story with tons of logic holes.

    • bmaz says:

      Wait. So you are alleging that a “magazine article” from Hersh makes a different “magazine article” curious? That seems curious. Not that both are not somewhat “curious”, but it seems a moving line you are drawing.

  8. Luis de Leon says:

    Alongside all of this is the situation in Haiti where Nepalese aid workers are said to have poisoned the local population, a charge the UN is still refuting. Some of the righteous outrage against the UN is being displaced by the famous Jonathan M Katz who broke the cholera story in Haiti. But aware of it or not, Katz is serving the elite establishment quite well in attacking Penn. Closing ranks alongsie him are not only AP reporters and various writers, but Virginia’s Air Force reporter Stephen Losey, who Tweeted “While Sean Penn was drining tequila with El Chapo, this is what happens to real journalists reporting on cartels.”

    The elites by instinct are on the hunt and will not be satisfied until Penn is virtually crucified. Any dirt on him is welcome. Come join the fun in participatory McCarthyism!

    Here’s what they’re not going to say. There is a standard media gimmick for writing about deep state clients. The Americans are hapless idiots and the foreigners trick us into denying our good Anglo ways. Newsweek reported that Guzman “manipulated” us (1/30/12 ). Vox reported that ISIS manipulated us too regarding Kayla Jean Mueller. (VOX 6/12/2015). Sometimes it’s even more obvious, like when Hillary Clinton claimed she had to hunt down Chinese diplomats who were hiding from her. The NYT recently wrote in print that ISIS was created by Saddam.

    Sean Penn actually scooped most of today’s hotshot journalists on reporting in Afghanistan. He found out the one of the top 25 military contractors, Dyncorp, had been running rape rings in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and who knows where else? (SFGate 1/15/2004). As this story broke in the press, the natural alliance between the journalistic elite and the state kicked in and the horrible crime was attributed mainly to the United Nations and Afghanistan’s odd backward culture. The dominant Orientalist framework creates a belief that sexual deviancy must always be directed at foreigners, never at us.

    You are far more likely to hear Dyncorp as victims of vicious Taliban attacks than as perpetrators of prostitution. Yes, if you report on the people who do business with brown thugs you are ignored. If you blame a few punching bags like the UN and Clinton, no attack is too low. Chavez lover! Penn likes Nickleback! When they were tracked to Colombia, the media all but suppressed it ( 3/26/2015), except for Sean Penn at SFGate in 2004, and David Isenberg in 2010, who observed “in a much less noticed case, in October 2004 it was revealed that DynCorp contract workers operating at Tolemaida Air Base in Colombia distributed a video in which they could be observed sexually violating underage girls from the town of Melgar.”

    I don’t ask that anyone believe or concoct an intentional conspiracy to cover this up. But the cultural and institutional system of our corporate media will suppress much needed information about how it works. You do not criticize the press ever. Ever.

  9. milkshake says:

    I think Sean Penn blundered into this, and was exploited for a cover story, and afterwards he was approached by Feds, and he allowed them to write his RS article – if not for other reason, to save himself from looking like an imbecile, and from legal harassment.

    I don’t think there was any deep betrayal on Penn’s side during the meeting with Chapo. The downfall really started with the Chapo second escape. I think there was a deal the Mexican government made with US to catch and extradite him. US provided the intel, and the fool.

  10. Guy says:

    Everybody knows in Mexico this was pure show. Far away of being a sophisticated global/organized crime mind, El Chapo is just the usual gunman of the real drug lords in Mexico and the US: fat cat politicians, well connected businessmen, corrupt officials in the armed forces and the like. For the mexican regime, this show brings the golden chance to hide serious problems this year, like the plummeting oil prices, the peso devaluation and the growing narco violence in Guerrero, Morelos, Tamaulipas, Michoacan and other states…

  11. Rayne says:

    I can’t help wonder how much and how fast the Sinaloa cartel has had to change its business model in a very short time due to the drop in the price of oil over the last 18 months since VICE produced this video report on oil and cocaine in MX. Is the organization more brittle for this reason? Why would a narco/petro cartel be any different from the Saudis and the rest of the oil-dependent Middle East states? What role would this have played in El Chapo’s ‘exposure’? (NB the cartel attributed with greatest power over oil in MX is Los Zetas, NOT Sinaloa. Oil may be largest factor in shifting cartel dynamics in MX to Zetas.)

    • bmaz says:

      That is a pretty interesting thought. I don’t know, but the ground was certainly changing rapidly under all the cartels as a result of consolidation and dying off. It sure looks to me that for a couple (few?) years there has been more war and damage within the two major groups in a struggle for power than war between the two.

  12. emptywheel says:

    Amid the continued uproar from journalists not interested in details, I keep thinking about this passage from Penn’s story.

    He cites (but asks me not to name in print) a host of corrupt major corporations, both within Mexico and abroad. He notes with delighted disdain several through which his money has been laundered, and who take their own cynical slice of the narco pie.

    The list of corporations that help(ed) Chapo launder his money is the kind of thing Penn said animates his interest in the hypocritical drug war (I’m sympathetic with that view: until the US cleans up its own house, it’s silliness to turn Chapo into the world’s greatest villain).

    It’s also the kind of thing both US TLAs and Mexican authorities would like to keep hidden.

    And so it is, hidden.

    I’m as bugged by that as by any review Chapo or a TLA got of this story.

  13. scottindallas says:

    24 Raine. the falling price of oil might well change economic dynamics, but it won’t affect oil shipments or deliveries, those keep on moving. But, the constrained finances, and the “spot” price for oil is down to $20/barrel–this is the immediate price at the well head, sans contract. Again, I like your argument, (that oil delivery might be a cover or otherwise abet the drug trade) you seem to worry that it’s might not remain plausible with lower prices, and I’m saying that actual delivery and shipment probably is only falling off 10% at most, though the money might be 1/10 of what it was. It seems MOST likely that oil is used to launder drug money is nothing else.

    • Rayne says:

      scottindallas — I wonder to whom/what cartels stealing oil were selling it, if PEMEX is THE national oil company?

      With oil’s ppb dropping to 1/4, there’s a point of diminishing returns. Cartels more likely to shift to something making more money if they have too much infrastructure to support.

      Also wonder how much Middle Eastern terrorism still relying on cash from either drugs or oil via Mexico now. How much has this changed with drop in oil prices?

      Makes me wonder if Zetas were used by TLA to aid in this Penn-Chapo biz, had incentive to remove excess competition in a crashing market.

  14. Denis says:

    Regardless of whether one considers Penn a pompous creep, a criminal, or a cretin, it took huge, titanium balls to wade into a Mexican jungle to hook up with Chapo (“The Chainsaw”) Guzman. This is the biggest Hollywood story in history — bigger than Tom Cruise and Scientology or Jolie’s mastectomy. Imagine John Wayne going to Berlin to do a sit-down with Hitler. Wayne was such a coward he didn’t even enlist to help fight WWII. Eastwood, Wayne, Cruise — standard Hollywood tough-guys who are/were cowards in real life.
    Penn deserves a Pulitzer for his courage alone. His writing skills . . . maybe not so much. But he does have a director’s eye for describing a scene.

  15. Evangelista says:

    Off the topic, perhaps, but in the vein (the correlation of odd journalism with Sy Hersh referenced in comment brought it to my mind), the last Sy Hersh article, in the LRB, seemed a bit oddly turned, too. In that U.S. military, DoD, or Pentagon ‘intelligence’ was alleged ‘given to Syria’ by being given to Germany, Israel and Turkey, with ‘what they did with it then’ being assigned to Don’t ask, Don’t tell territory. Hersh did not appear to do anything journalistically screwy since he simply reported the reporting of his source, so it was the reporting with lack of critical assessment that was odd: Since when did giving information to Israel and Turkey become equivalent to giving it to Syria? Or to Germany before the immigrant invasion slewed German foreign pollicy out of the complacent-and-compliant track? The Hersh source being, apparently, a good one of long standing, the impression was of a slop-‘n-sop payback. I haen’t read the Penn piece, but seeing two examples in succession, I wonder if there is an alignment in the stars, or phase of the moon effecting jounalismus today (maybe having something to do with year-end account-balancing for tax-year loading).

    • new here says:

      really think u.s. gave info to israel, israel to syria?
      maybe giving to isis in syria is in someone’s mind giving to syria?

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