“The trust that El Chapo had extended to us was not to be fucked with.”
This is how Sean Penn justified the steps he took to get the interview with Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman that Rolling Stone published shortly after Mexico’s most infamous drug lord was arrested on Friday. “I take no pride in keeping secrets that may be perceived as protecting criminals,” the American actor wrote. And yet: “This will be the first interview El Chapo had ever granted outside an interrogation room, leaving me no precedent by which to measure the hazards.”
But there is precedent for interviewing dangerous subjects. Peter Bergen, who in 1997 scored Osama bin Laden’s first TV interview with the Western press, told me that such interviews inevitably involve trade-offs, and that there are no hard-and-fast rules. “They control the situation; you don’t,” Bergen said. “The fact is this is not like going to interview somebody who runs the Chemical Industries Association of North America.”
And there is debate about whether Chapo’s revelations were worth the steps Penn took to obtain them. In Penn’s telling, those steps included using burner phones and encrypted communications to evade Mexican and American authorities; emphasizing his willingness to “suspend judgment” about Chapo’s livelihood; making a stealth visit to Chapo’s heavily fortified jungle hideout; relinquishing control over the interview by submitting questions from the United States for a cameraman in Mexico to selectively ask the kingpin; and sending the entire article to Chapo for his approval before it ran (Rolling Stone claims the cartel leader didn’t ask for changes).