Desperately seeking El Chapo

The actor Sean Penn and the narcotraficante Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, who recently traded tequila shots in the Mexican jungle, have more in common than might be immediately apparent. They’ve both had a long association with products that have been blamed for the moral decline of Western civilisation – in Chapo’s case, illegal drugs; in Penn’s, Hollywood movies and Madonna.

I’m not sure which was the greater challenge, tracking down the Mexican drug kingpin or reading Sean Penn’s 10,000 word article about him. The former took six long months, while the latter certainly felt like it did.

But if you wade through the endless paragraphs which betray the author’s greater fascination with himself than with his subject, there is an extraordinary story to discover. Penn’s tale of burner phones and planes fitted with scramblers feels like a thriller, and his success in reaching Chapo seems so implausible that it’s lucky that the two of them took a photo together to prove it really happened.

Despite the contempt many have expressed for Penn, it cannot be denied that while Mexico and America were using every resource they had to find him, a Hollywood actor managed to reach him while armed only with hubris.

Given Penn’s stunning success, one can only wonder how many years and lives could have been saved if the hunt for Osama bin Laden had been entrusted to Justin Bieber.

It’s possible that Penn’s contact led directly to Chapo’s capture, and if that’s the case, the actor is undoubtedly as brave as he is naive as he is at risk of having an extremely uncomfortable conversation with a blowtorch-wielding member of the Sinaloa cartel.

And while the world generally indulges its film stars, it’s unlikely that Chapo’s associates will give Penn a free pass because they liked his stoner character in Fast Times At Ridgemont High.

We’re only in the second week of January, but I’m confident that Penn’s trip to visit Chapo will not be topped in this year’s surreal celebrity story sweepstakes. Surely we’ve already found the 2016 version of Barnaby Joyce’s jihad on Johnny Depp’s dogs?

There’s just so much about this tale that seems implausible, from the involvement of a glamorous Mexican star who has played a narco on-screen, to Penn’s assertion that he has no idea whether laptops are still a thing, to his confession that at a pivotal moment in the narrative, he passed wind.

Perhaps the strangest twist in the story is the suggestion that the drug kingpin’s desire to produce his own biopic led him to meet with Penn. Despite being the most murderous drug lord in a notoriously brutal country, El Chapo seems no less insecure about his place in history as any tinpot dictator who’s ever filled his suffering country with statues of himself.

The drug boss seems to be attempting a more extreme version of the project undertaken by the members of NWA when they airbrushed the darker side of their own pasts out of Straight Out Of Compton. Quite possibly as a result, he’s now unlikely to get a triumphant ending, and will instead rot in a US jail.

So El Chapo’s motives for meeting the actor were clear enough. But why on earth did Sean Penn want to sit down with the world’s most notorious drug trafficker?

His lengthy justification involves the oft-cited argument that the ‘War on Drugs’ has failed, and that addiction should be treated through the paradigm of healthcare rather than law enforcement:

What of the tens of thousands of sick and suffering chemically addicted Americans, barbarically imprisoned for the crime of their illness? Locked down in facilities where unspeakable acts of dehumanization and violence are inescapable, and murder a looming threat. Are we saying that what’s systemic in our culture, and out of our direct hands and view, shares no moral equivalency to those abominations that may rival narco assassinations in Juarez?

This is a critique worth exploring, and even President Obama has been declaring his dissatisfaction with the War on Drugs of late.

And yet you don’t need to sit down with one of US drug policy’s greatest villains (and, arguably, beneficiaries) to examine the situation’s complexities. Regardless of what one might think of the way our society moralises about the product he supplies, El Chapo is undoubtedly a mass-murderer.

Penn’s extracurricular ‘activist’ activities are as passionately conducted as they are widely parodied. Presumably Penn told himself he was provoking some much-needed debate, and got excited about the adventure involved – which, admittedly, was considerable. But just because you’re offered access to a fascinating villain doesn’t mean you should take it on any terms.

We cannot expect Sean Penn to act judiciously unless he’s in front of a camera, but Rolling Stone should not have endorsed his mission. The conflicts involving Mexico’s drug cartels have led to the deaths of more than 160,000 people, according to government estimates, and no deals should be cut that might benefit the reputations of anybody involved.

And while the actor’s article is certainly not hagiography, Rolling Stone’s decision to grant Chapo approval was indefensible. Even if the effort backfired and led to his capture, no self-respecting publication should trade its integrity for even as extraordinary an exclusive as this one.

Rolling Stone’s formidable reputation has suffered in the wake of recent scandals, and the magazine that published Hunter S Thompson’s brilliant first hand-accounts needs to lift its standards. Penn’s piece is not the classic gonzo journalism it purports to be. Rather, it feels more like a stunt pulled by a different kind of Gonzo.

For Penn’s sake, I just hope Chapo’s henchmen are kinder than the journalism academics will be.

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