Did Sean Penn’s Meeting With El Chapo Help Authorities Track Down the Kingpin?

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When Mexican authorities captured Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in January 2016, they suggested that their success stemmed in part from an October 2015 meeting the kingpin held with Hollywood star Sean Penn and Mexican actress Kate del Castillo. Now, extensive reporting by InSight Crime combined with evidence presented in a new documentary film series has called into question details of various narratives surrounding these events.

At least one person close to this case believes that Penn’s legal team may have tipped off US authorities about the planned meeting with El Chapo, potentially allowing the United States to inform its Mexican partners, who are known to have surveilled Penn and others in Mexico around the time of the meeting. 

In a statement to InSight Crime, a spokesperson for Penn strongly denied that this was the case. However, knowledgeable sources consulted by InSight Crime suggested that whether or not such a tip-off occurred, it is likely that El Chapo’s meeting with Penn and del Castillo was indeed an important element of the hunt for one of the most powerful drug barons the world has ever known. 

Additionally, InSight Crime has obtained documents from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that contain reports apparently derived from press accounts indicating that Penn met with one of El Chapo’s children on Venezuela’s Margarita Island prior to meeting El Chapo himself, and that Venezuelan authorities offered “protection” for this meeting. 

Penn has not previously commented in public on these reports, which were not widely circulated, and despite repeated attempts, the actor’s representatives declined to address them on the record. (El Chapo’s legal team also declined requests for comment for this article.) Nevertheless, the DHS documents and other circumstantial evidence lend plausibility to this little-discussed but potentially significant aspect of the story.

The Documents 

InSight Crime obtained the documents from DHS through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). They are heavily redacted, and Penn’s name does not actually appear in them. But they do contain details that closely match previously reported information about Penn’s and del Castillo’s contacts with El Chapo. 

For instance, a section of the documents dated January 12, 2016, references the publication of photographs of an “actress” who “brought [redacted] together.” 

This seems to refer to photographs of Penn and del Castillo that were reportedly taken by Mexican intelligence agents at the time of the meeting with El Chapo and were published in the Mexican press shortly after the kingpin’s January 2016 arrest.   

Del Castillo’s name does not appear in the DHS documents, either. And the photographs are extremely grainy, with the subjects’ faces redacted, making them essentially inscrutable. But del Castillo’s legal representative Harland Braun told InSight Crime that he suspects the documents do in fact refer to his client and Penn. 

“I would think the ‘actors and producers’ [mentioned in the documents] refers to my client, Sean Penn and the other actors and producers,” Braun said.

 

(Excerpt from DHS documents obtained by InSight Crime)

The Meeting 

According to Penn’s own account — published in Rolling Stone magazine the day after El Chapo’s 2016 arrest, and publicly criticized by many at the time, including InSight Crime Co-director Steven Dudley — del Castillo played a key part in facilitating the meeting with El Chapo. 

El Chapo first contacted del Castillo through a lawyer after she posted a message on her Twitter account in 2012 addressed to the Sinaloa Cartel kingpin, who was a free man at the time following his first escape from a Mexican prison in 2001. 

“Today I believe more in El Chapo Guzmán than I do in the governments that hide truths from me, even if they are painful,” the tweet read, in part. “Mr. Chapo, wouldn’t it be cool if you started trafficking with the good? … Come on, señor, you would be the hero of heroes.” 

Del Castillo starred in the popular 2011 Mexican soap opera series “The Queen of the South,” which follows the fictional story of a woman from El Chapo’s home state of Sinaloa who moves to Spain and becomes an international drug dealer. The show is loosely based on a real-life convicted drug trafficker named Sandra Avila Beltrán

According to El Chapo’s lawyer Andrés Granados, who was interviewed in a new Netflix series produced by del Castillo called “The Day I Met El Chapo,” the Sinaloa Cartel boss became a big fan of del Castillo’s work, so much so that he eventually gave her the exclusive rights to produce a film about him. 

In the series, del Castillo describes how she and El Chapo stayed in touch through intermediaries even after the drug lord’s arrest in 2014. At the time, del Castillo was involved in talks about the film project, and came into contact with Penn through a mutual acquaintance in Los Angeles, Argentine-born producer Fernando Sulichín. 

SEE ALSO: El Chapo News and Profile

After El Chapo’s sensational escape from prison in July 2015, Penn wrote in the Rolling Stone article that he reached out to Sulichín, who told him that El Chapo and del Castillo had been in contact following the prison break. Penn then proposed to do a magazine story on El Chapo, and the mutual friend put him in touch with del Castillo, who helped set up the meeting, which took place in early October 2015. 

In her Netflix series and in previous interviews with the New Yorker and LA Weekly, del Castillo has given an account of the machinations behind the El Chapo meeting that essentially matches the version told by Penn in his Rolling Stone article. 

However, in the Netflix series she says that Penn’s article contains some “lies.” For instance, she says that she never received flowers from El Chapo, as the article states, and she also denies that she and Penn passed through a Mexican military checkpoint on the way to meet the drug boss. 

Del Castillo also differs with Penn on a crucial detail: namely, she disputes the actor’s claims that he was clear about his intentions regarding the El Chapo visit. (The filmmakers say Penn did not respond to their requests for comment.) 

While Penn insisted in a statement to the New Yorker last year that the trip “was embarked upon with total transparency and full knowledge of our collective interests,” del Castillo says Penn misled her to believe that he was trying to help her move her film project forward, and that Penn did not mention his plan to write the Rolling Stone article until they were already meeting with El Chapo. 

In the Netflix series, a friend of del Castillo’s called Penn’s actions a “betrayal.” A former Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent in the Netflix series said the actress had been “duped.”

The Arrest 

Days after the meeting with Penn and del Castillo, Mexican Marines mounted an operation to capture El Chapo at his suspected hideout in Sinaloa. 

Although Penn has previously denied that his visit with the crime boss had anything to do with his arrest, del Castillo says in the Netflix series that Penn told her he believed that the raid was linked to their visit. Del Castillo says she thinks it’s possible. “But really,” she adds, “I don’t know.” 

The October 2015 capture attempt failed, but the drug lord was arrested by Mexican authorities several months later, on January 8, 2016. 

In a January 11, 2016, radio interview, Mexico’s then-Attorney General Arely Gómez said the meeting with Penn and del Castillo was an “essential element” in the hunt for El Chapo “because we were following [El Chapo’s] lawyer, and the lawyer took us to these people and to this meeting.” 

A few days later, Penn rejected that statement in an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes,” in which he described as a “myth” the idea that his meeting with El Chapo had helped Mexican authorities to track down the drug boss. 

Interviewer Charlie Rose pressed him: “So as far as you know, you had nothing to do and your visit had nothing to do with his recapture?” 

“Here’s the things that we know: We know that the Mexican government … they were clearly very humiliated by the notion that someone found him before they did,” Penn responded. “Well, nobody found him before they did. We didn’t — we’re not smarter than the DEA or the Mexican intelligence. We had a contact upon which we were able to facilitate an invitation.”

Penn’s statements to “60 Minutes” are somewhat vague, but in his own Rolling Stone account of the meeting with El Chapo he said he was sure he was being surveilled. 

In the article, Penn wrote that at the time of the visit to El Chapo’s hideout, there was “no question in my mind but that the DEA and the Mexican government [were] tracking our movements.” 

InSight Crime did not receive a response to repeated requests to the Mexican Attorney General’s Office to comment on whether it stands by the statements made by Gómez, who was replaced as attorney general by Raúl Cervantes Andrade in October 2016.

SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel News and Profile

Shortly after El Chapo’s arrest, Gómez announced that the Attorney General’s Office had opened an investigation into whether Penn and del Castillo broke Mexican law during the course of their visit with El Chapo. 

In response to an inquiry from the Associated Press, Penn said he had “nothin’ to hide.” Del Castillo declined to comment. 

On January 11, 2016, the New York Post reported that then-US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara had also opened an investigation of Penn’s contacts with El Chapo. 

The Southern District declined to comment on the existence or status of the reported probe of Penn. Participants in del Castillo’s Netflix series suggest that the Mexican investigation of her is an attempt at retribution for her past criticisms of the government, including figures like first lady Angélica Rivera. 

No formal charges have been brought against Penn or del Castillo in either country.

The Tip Off? 

One of the most explosive allegations in the new Netflix series centers around the notion that Penn’s representatives may have alerted US authorities about the planned visit with El Chapo. 

Braun, del Castillo’s legal representative, told InSight Crime prior to the release of the Netflix series that he suspects Penn’s legal team tipped off US law enforcement — something he also states in the film series. 

“My speculation is that Mr. Penn’s legal team notified the US government and they in turn notified the Mexican authorities who were able to survey the meeting between Mr. Penn and Mr. Guzmán, subsequently leading to his arrest,” Braun told InSight Crime. 

“Mr. Penn’s legal team did what lawyers are supposed to do, protect their client. I assume that they were trying to protect Mr. Penn as well as themselves. After they heard he was meeting with the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, I’m sure they notified the authorities,” Braun said. 

“My speculation is that Mr. Penn’s legal team notified the US government and they in turn notified the Mexican authorities who were able to survey the meeting between Mr. Penn and Mr. Guzmán, subsequently leading to his arrest.” – Harland Braun

Comments by an unnamed law enforcement source who spoke to the New York Post around the time of El Chapo’s 2016 arrest seem to lend weight to Braun’s theory. 

“Other people found out about his intentions. It started leaking out, and then Sean Penn came into the mix,” the source said. “One thing I can tell you: If Chapo had never met with Penn, he would still be at large.” 

In a statement provided to InSight Crime, a spokesperson from the Penn camp rejected speculation that someone from Penn’s legal team may have tipped off authorities. 

“The notion that Mr. Penn or anyone on his behalf alerted DOJ to the trip is a complete fabrication and bald-faced lie. It never happened, nor would there have been any reason for it to have happened,” the statement says. 

The statement also implies that del Castillo and those close to her are engaged in an effort of self-promotion. 

“It is reprehensible that, in their ongoing, relentless efforts to gain additional attention and publicity, Ms. del Castillo and her team (who have zero firsthand knowledge) have sought to create this profoundly false, foolish, and reckless narrative,” the statement reads.

The Surveillance 

While it is uncertain whether someone close to Penn may have tipped off US law enforcement about the October 2015 meeting in Mexico, it is clear that surveillance of El Chapo’s contacts with Penn and del Castillo played a role in the hunt for the drug boss. 

Del Castillo, who described herself in the Netflix series as the “intermediary” between Penn and El Chapo, turned out to be an important target of government telephone intercepts. 

Text messages exchanged between El Chapo and del Castillo were scooped up by Mexican authorities and eventually leaked to the newspaper Milenio. (In the Netflix series, del Castillo and some close to her allege that the government manipulated the content of the messages in an attempt to smear her reputation.)   

Whether or not similar surveillance was conducted specifically on Penn by either Mexican or US authorities remains uncertain. However, Mike Vigil, the former Chief of International Operations at the DEA, told InSight Crime that the now-famous meeting was the “catalyst” for El Chapo “taking a hit.” 

“In a way you can say that it did lead to his downfall,” Vigil said. “After his meeting with Penn and del Castillo … [El Chapo] became even more enamored with her, and as a result of that, he started communicating with her by telephone.” 

Mark Schnapp, the former head of the criminal division at the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida, also linked El Chapo’s capture to his sloppiness when it came to his electronic communication practices. 

“Let’s face it. Unlike last time, when he was a fugitive for more than a decade, this time he got cocky and careless with a lot of people, including apparently with Ms. del Castillo,” Schnapp told InSight Crime.

Other former US officials pointed out that the meeting was just one element of a vast operation to track down El Chapo following his July 2015 prison break. 

Peter Vincent, a former high-ranking official with the departments of Justice and Homeland Security, downplayed the role of the meeting in comments to InSight Crime.   

“This was an international manhunt, involving literally hundreds of pieces of leads the Mexican Marines were following, including security and informants close to Mr. Guzmán having nothing to do with the group that included Ms. del Castillo and Mr. Penn,” he said. 

Thomas Cash, a former high-ranking official with the DEA in Miami, went even further than Vincent, implying the meeting was completely insignificant. 

“The notion that Mr. Penn or his group were even relevant to finding El Chapo is completely absurd, and candidly, if Mr. Penn weren’t famous he wouldn’t be singled out, and we wouldn’t be having this discussion,” Cash wrote in an email to InSight Crime.

The Venezuela Connection 

The DHS documents obtained by InSight Crime suggest that US authorities, like their Mexican counterparts, were also interested in how the famous actors came to meet with one of the world’s most wanted criminals. 

The documents reference a previously reported — but largely ignored — aspect of the story of Penn’s journey to meet El Chapo: allegations that the actor traveled to Venezuela’s Margarita Island shortly ahead of the visit with the drug boss to meet with “at least one of [his] children.” 

The Spanish news outlet ABC published an article about the alleged Venezuela trip on January 11, 2016, days after El Chapo had been re-arrested. The DHS documents contain what appears to be an English summary of the ABC report accompanied by the same picture that accompanied the original article. (The picture in the DHS documents is grainy and redacted, but it is possible to make out the resemblance.) 

(Top: Screenshot of original ABC article. Bottom: Photo excerpted from DHS documents) 

ABC reported that the meeting between Penn and El Chapo’s son(s) was “apparently” conducted under the “protection” of Hugo Carvajal, a current congressman in Venezuela who served as Director of Military Intelligence between 2004 and 2011. 

Carvajal was sanctioned in 2008 by the United States for allegedly supporting the drug trafficking activities of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). He is suspected of belonging to the corrupt drug trafficking networks within the Venezuelan military known as the Cartel of the Suns. 

Although the DHS documents appear to be derived from ABC’s thinly-sourced report, other evidence lends credibility to the notion that Venezuelan officials might have helped facilitate Penn’s meeting with El Chapo. 

Penn has well-established ties with the Venezuelan government. He first met then-President Hugo Chávez during a 2007 trip to Venezuela, and remained a staunch defender of Chávez until the leader’s death in 2013. 

The Venezuelan government, particularly under Chávez’s hand-picked successor Nicolás Maduro, has strongly backed and at times even promoted several high-level officials accused of involvement in the drug trade, including Carvajal, Interior Minister Nestor Reverol and Vice President Tareck El Aissami.

According to ABC, DEA sources claimed that El Chapo himself had traveled to Venezuela previously and may have been in the country in August or September 2015, shortly before the encounter between Penn and one of his children. However, El Chapo was reportedly seen in many different countries following his prison break earlier that year, some as far away as Europe, raising questions about the veracity of the supposed Venezuela sighting.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and Profiles

Nevertheless, while direct links between El Chapo and Venezuelan officials have not been established, Mexican drug trafficking organizations are known to have ties to Venezuelan crime networks. 

For instance, a Sinaloa Cartel operative turned DEA informant was apparently a key point of contact for two nephews of Venezuela’s first lady Cilia Flores who were convicted last year of drug charges in US federal court. 

And members of Venezuela’s military have been accused of working with Mexican drug trafficking groups in the past. For example, Walid Makled, a convicted drug trafficker who worked with the Cartel of the Suns, alleged that several drug flights left the state of Apure in Venezuela each day, and that their cargo was ultimately destined for Mexican trafficking groups to transport to the United States. 

The ABC report about Penn’s supposed visit to Margarita Island remains unconfirmed by independent sources. (The actor’s spokesperson declined to comment on this aspect of the story.) But if Venezuelan officials did help facilitate a meeting between Penn and one of El Chapo’s sons, it was more likely as a favor to Penn in return for his long-time defense of Venezuela’s controversial government, rather than as a move to flatter or appease the Sinaloa Cartel kingpin.   

According to Braun, del Castillo knew nothing about Penn’s supposed trip to Venezuela. 

“We have absolutely no knowledge of this meeting in Venezuela,” he said. “However, if it proves to be true, that would tell me that Mr. Penn was going behind my client’s back.”

A Hollywood Ending 

After nearly a year of legal wrangling, El Chapo was extradited to the United States in January 2017. He is currently facing trial for numerous drug and organized crime-related charges in a federal court in New York. If convicted, he could serve a life sentence. 

Meanwhile, the drug kingpin’s infamy has spawned a slew of entertainment ventures — some of them spurious — based on his image. 

A drama series produced by Univision and Netflix, simply titled “El Chapo,” premiered on the television network on April 23, and was later released on the internet streaming service. 

Reports also indicate that Sony Pictures has obtained the rights to produce a film based on a book by a pseudonymous DEA agent and a Canadian journalist titled, “Hunting El Chapo: The Thrilling Inside Story of the American Lawman Who Captured the World’s Most-Wanted Drug Lord.” Big-budget director Michael Bay is reportedly in talks about the project.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Narco Culture

That movie is set to compete with an adaptation of novelist Don Winslow’s fictionalized version of El Chapo’s story, “The Cartel,” which is being produced by 20th Century Fox. Award-winning director Ridley Scott is reportedly attached to the film. 

And del Castillo said recently that she too wants to follow through on her plans to make a movie about the infamous drug lord. 

“I want to be the one who brings forward a story that concerns everyone,” she says near the end of her Netflix series. “It would be incredibly important for my career. And for me, personally, as a Mexican. Talking about organized crime in Mexico is important to me.” 

As for Penn, it is unclear whether he is planning to be involved in any future media projects related to El Chapo.

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