Penn Envy: Fear of Citizen Journalism Defined Commercial Media’s Hostile Response to the Interview of the Decade

Sean Penn & Kate del Castillo Scooped the Press and Embarrassed the US & Mexican Governments in Interview with Chapo Guzmán

Oscar winner Sean Penn and Mexican film and TV star Kate del Castillo recently played staring roles as citizen journalists and scooped the world’s major media outlets by scoring a sit-down interview with a notorious Mexican narco-trafficker: Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera (aka Chapo Guzmán).  

As one of the longtime leaders of the powerful Sinaloa drug-trafficking organization, Guzmán has been on the run from law enforcers for years — having previously twice escaped from high-security Mexican prisons.

Penn said in a recent interview with CBS News that the story he authored for Rolling Stone magazine earlier this month based on the visit with Guzmán was intended to spur a deeper discussion about drug-war policy. Instead, it drew a round of cackles from major U.S. media machines like the Washington Post, which characterized Penn’s first-person account as being self-absorbed and an insult to the dozens of Mexican journalists who have been murdered covering the drug war.

Boiled down, the argument advanced by the Washington Post and echoed by other media outlets seems to be that because Penn and del Castillo were not tortured or killed by Guzmán and his associates, or at last threatened with bodily harm, then they couldn’t possibly be real journalists — and consequently Penn’s Rolling Stone story simply can’t be taken seriously.

To make matters worse for Penn and del Castillo, the Mexican government is trying to paint a target on their backs by announcing that Mexican law enforcers were monitoring Penn and del Castillo’s communications with Guzmán. That surveillance, Mexico’s attorney general claims, was key to leading Mexican Marines to the drug traffickers’ secret hideout in the mountain jungles that straddle the border between the Mexican states of Durango and Sinaloa — a region in northwestern Mexico that is part of the so-called Golden Triangle, so named for its copious production of marijuana and heroin.

The claims by both U.S. media outlets and the Mexican government in justifying their attacks on Penn and del Castillo, however, don’t stand up to the sanitizing effects of sunshine.

String of Coincidences

Penn and del Castillo met with Guzmán this past October in a jungle clearing somewhere in the mountains of Mexico. That meeting, and a series of follow-up interviews conducted via BlackBerry Messenger and video, became fodder for a Rolling Stone story published online on Jan. 9 of this year.

A few days after the Oct. 2, 2015, meeting between Penn, del Castillo and Guzmán, Mexican forces laid siege to some 13 mountain communities in the Tamazula municipality of Durango, Mexico, in pursuit of Guzmán, who managed to escape the law’s clutches, but not before some 700 residents were forced to flee their homes due to the Mexican military’s assault on the area, according to press reports.

Mexican Marines finally caught up with Guzmán on Friday, Jan. 8, 2016, in the Mexican city of Los Mochis, far away from the security of his mountain hideout and the protection of his mercenary army, estimated to number in the 100s. Guzmán was apprehended a short distance from a house in that Pacific coast community that was stormed by a relatively small team of some 17 Mexican Marines, according to news reports. Five of Guzmán’s guards allegedly were killed in the raid and another six arrested — representing a small fraction of his much larger, well-armed security entourage.

In a case of coincidence being stranger than fiction, the Rolling Stone print edition featuring the Guzmán story was shipped to the press on Friday, Jan. 8, 2016 — the same day the fugitive was recaptured — but wasn’t slated to reach the newsstands until the following Friday. Had Penn’s story hit the streets before Guzmán’s apprehension, it would have undoubtedly proven very embarrassing to law-enforcement agencies on both sides of the border.

The day after Guzmán’s arrest, Rolling Stone published Penn’s 10,000-word article online, providing a first-hand account of his journey into the heart of the drug war this past fall to meet with one of the most-wanted men in the world.

Two days after Penn’s story appeared online, a Mexican newspaper (on Jan. 11, 2016) published a series of surveillance photos of Penn and del Castillo taken at an airport and a hotel — presumably shot by Mexican intelligence agents.

That same day, Monday, Jan. 11, Reuters reported that Mexico’s attorney general, Arely Gómez González, appeared on a Mexican radio station announcing that Penn and del Castillo’s meeting with Guzmán was “an essential element” to the narco-trafficker’s capture. 

Also on Jan. 11, the Washington Post published its blistering critique of Penn’s Rolling Stone article based largely on the comments of the Dallas Morning News’ Mexico City bureau chief, Alfredo Corchado, who questioned whether Penn “is serving the public” or “aggrandizing himself.”

Corchado pointed out that Guzmán was allowed to review Penn’s story prior to publication — although no changes were made, according to Rolling Stone.

“When you’re not really challenging the person and have agreed to submit the story for approval, it sounds more like a Hollywood entertainment,” Corchado told the Washington Post. “It’s not on par with the sacrifice of many of my colleagues in Mexico and throughout the world who have lost their lives fighting censorship.”

In a less-varnished version of his comments to the Washington Post, Corchado tweeted the following on Jan. 9, 2016 — the day Penn’s Rolling Stone article appeared online:

To describe ?#chapo#SeanPenn mtg as an interview is an epic insult to journalists who died in name of truth.

It’s worth noting that Corchado has achieved a modicum of mainstream media fame and career success by publicly broadcasting the alleged death threats made against him while covering the drug war in Mexico.

Penn’s story in Rolling Stone may have had a bit of a navel-gazing quality to it in parts — a critique that can be made of many first-hand accounts penned by professional journalists as well, including Corchado’s book, Midnight in Mexico. Yet Penn’s article also provides some key insights into the reality of the drug war. His story, for example, points out several instances in which Guzmán’s ability to avoid apprehension was enabled by corrupt elements of the Mexican military and how well-known “major corporations” have knowingly assisted in laundering Sinaloa drug-organization proceeds, “and who take their own cynical slice of the narco pie.”

Such revelations rarely make their way into the mainstream U.S. media accounts, which typically paint the drug war as being a battle between the good guys (U.S. and Mexican law enforcers) against the bad guys (the “cartels” and evil “drug lords”). Penn’s article, for all its faults, does effectively show how those lines are blurred.

The attack on Penn and del Castillo, by journalists like Corchado and the Mexican government, however, goes beyond subjective critiques of the duo’s journalistic abilities. It actually crosses over into hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and petty contempt and revenge — likely born out of jealousy on the part of establishment journalists like Corchado, who were scooped by Penn and del Castillo; and due to the embarrassment of the Mexican government, which, as Penn said in his CBS News interview, was “clearly humiliated by the notion that someone got to him [Guzmán] before they did.”

Hiding in Plain Sight

With respect to the high horses that Corchado and other like-minded “professional” journalists often ride with respect to the subject of the drug war, it’s worth pointing out that it is not only commercial journalists working for advertising-influenced news organizations that risk life and limb in covering stories in the world’s danger spots. In fact, between 2011 and 2014, at least six citizen journalists were murdered in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, home to drug-war hotspots like the cities of Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo.

A recent report from Reporters Without Borders also points out that in 2015 alone, a total of 27 citizen journalists were killed worldwide. So it seems citizen journalists like Penn and del Castillo are not immune from danger in covering the drug war as Corchado seems to suggest. In that light, it is Corchado’s comments that demonstrate unwarranted hostility toward unpaid citizen journalists everywhere, many of whom are taking great risks in covering dangerous stories in their communities.

Penn, in his interview with CBS News, puts Corchado’s comments into context: “When you get the story that every journalist in the world wanted, there’s a lot of green-eyed monsters who gonna come give you a kiss.”

Like Corchado’s misplaced logic, the Mexican government’s narrative painting Penn and del Castillo as unwitting stool pigeons also is fatally flawed. Penn points out in the CBS interview that Guzmán’s recent capture in the coastal community of Los Mochis came months after he and del Castillo met with Guzmán in his mountain hideaway, which was located far from Mexico’s Pacific shores.

Baruch Vega, a former CIA asset who also worked for the DEA and FBI in brokering the surrender of major narco-traffickers in Latin America, agrees with Penn and insists his interview with Guzmán was not at all key to the narco-trafficker’s arrest. Vega still has deep contacts within U.S. and Latin American law enforcement and intelligence communities.

Vega says Penn and del Castillo likely were under surveillance by Mexican authorities. He stresses, however, that U.S. and Mexican authorities knew where Guzmán was located well in advance of the actors’ meeting with the outlaw this past October and had been actively monitoring Guzmán's communications.

“They were following him [Guzmán] closely in every aspect.,” Vega says his sources told him months ago. He adds that law enforcers were waiting for the right opportunity to arrest Guzmán, when he wasn’t with his full security unit —recognizing that an encounter with hundreds of armed mercenaries would lead to a bloodbath.

Mexican authorities last apprehended Guzmán in February 2014 in the coastal Mexican resort community of Mazatlan. The arrest went down without a shot being fired, in part because Guzmán’s large security detail was not with him.

Guzmán was then incarcerated in Mexico’s Altiplano maximum-security prison in Central Mexico and was awaiting trial when he escaped this past July via an elaborate tunnel system — which was somehow constructed under the prison and under the noses of Mexican law enforcers.

Hector Berrellez, who led the investigation into the 1985 torture and murder in Mexico of DEA agent Kiki Camarena, told Narco News previously that Guzmán’s arrest in Mazatlan was an “arranged thing.”

“This guy [Guzmán] was bigger than Pablo Escobar [the infamous Colombian narco-trafficker whom law enforcers killed in 1993 in a rooftop shootout in Medellin],” Berrellez said. “He [Guzmán] ran around with a several-hundred man security detail…, yet, in the end, he is arrested like a rat in a hole. My sources are telling me it was an arranged thing.”

Berrellez claimed Guzmán’s protection detail included Mexican federal agents and military personnel — which Penn’s article mentions as well.

“He was making [Mexican President Enrique] Peña Nieto look bad, and so the government decided to withdraw his security detail,” Berrellez said. “Chapo was told he could either surrender, or he would be killed.”

As remarkable as Berrellez’ claims may sound to some, there is evidence indicating that law enforcement authorities have known for years where to find Guzmán, who has led the Sinaloa organization since at least 2001, when he "escaped" from prison for the first time — supposedly hidden in a laundry truck.

In fact, the archbishop in the state of Durango stated publicly in 2009 that it was an open secret that Guzmán lived in the mountains near the town of Guanaceví, which is not all that far from where Mexican authorizes attempted to arrest him this past October in the wake of Penn and del Castillo’s clandestine meeting with the narco-trafficker.

The Antidote

So it seems Guzmán’s most recent capture had very little to do with Penn or del Castillo. The takeaway for Guzmán isn’t that he should fear citizen journalism. Rather, after his next escape — should one be arranged for a third time — Guzmán would be well-advised to remain in his mountain enclave close to his army of security guards and stay clear of taking vacations in coastal Mexican communities — if he can’t book enough rooms for his entire security team.  

As for Corchado and any other whiny professional journalists who might be green with envy over being scooped on a big story by citizen journalists, the best advice for them is to grow up and to quit using the valor of murdered journalists as their own personal badge of honor.

Penn hoped his story would prompt a deeper conversation about the drug war and the misery it spawns. If he failed in that goal, it’s only because we allow the national agenda to be set by a privileged group of dinosaur media organizations peppered with careerists who often put their own self-interest above reporting the truth of people’s lives — particularly the people who lack access to power.

The best antidote to that kind of censorship is for social movements to do their own journalism. Every citizen in the world today can, and should, report and tell the stories that the agenda-setting media does not or will not cover. That is the bright future of journalism, not it’s downfall.

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