Was Sean Penn’s jungle interview with Mexican drug lord El Chapo, as published in Rolling Stone, a legitimate work of gonzo journalism or the sordid result of celebrity access? Rolling Stone claimed in a disclosure that, while Penn allowed El Chapo to look at the story before it was published, the “subject did not ask for any changes.” This may be true. However, Slate has secured an original document proving that El Chapo did submit a careful line edit of Penn’s work. A source inside the Sinaloa cartel tells us El Chapo relinquished his demands only after Penn promised to introduce him to Oscar Isaac.
An excerpt of that document is printed below:
“The laws of conscience, which we pretend to be derived from nature, proceed from custom.” —Montaigne
[Sean, you are a great writer, killer voice. However, I think all this opening stuff has to go. Don’t you think your readers would be more interested in where I show up? I’m cutting this first section that is about you, for your own sake. Please don’t argue with me.]
It’s September 28th, 2015. 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. At 55 years old, I’ve never learned to use a laptop. Do they still make laptops? No fucking idea! It’s 4:00 in the afternoon. Another gorgeous fall day in New York City. The streets are abuzz with the lights and sirens of diplomatic movement, heads of state, U.N. officials, Secret Service details, the NYPD. It’s the week of the U.N. General Assembly. Pope Francis blazed a trail and left town two days before. I’m sitting in my room at the St. Regis Hotel with my colleague and brother in arms, Espinoza.
Espinoza and I have traveled many roads together, but none as unpredictable as the one we are now approaching. Espinoza is the owl who flies among falcons. Whether he’s standing in the midst of a slum, a jungle or a battlefield, his idiosyncratic elegance, mischievous smile and self-effacing charm have a way of defusing threat. His bald head demands your attention to his twinkling eyes. He’s a man fascinated and engaged. We whisper to each other in code. Finally a respite from the cyber technology that’s been sizzling my brain and soul. We sit within quietude of fortified walls that are old New York hotel construction, when walls were walls, and telephones were usable without a Ph.D. We quietly make our plans, sensitive to the paradox that also in our hotel is President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico. Espinoza and I leave the room to get outside the hotel, breathe in the fall air and walk the five blocks to a Japanese restaurant, where we’ll meet up with our colleague El Alto Garcia. As we exit onto 55th Street, the sidewalk is lined with the armored SUVs that will transport the president of Mexico to the General Assembly. Paradoxical indeed, as one among his detail asks if I will take a selfie with him. Flash frame: myself and a six-foot, ear-pieced Mexican security operator.
[All of this section I’ve cut to pieces.]
Flash frame: Why is this a paradox? It’s paradoxical because tToday’s Mexico has one real president [Let’s be real, Sean!] , in effect, two presidents. And among those two presidents, it It is not the “popularly elected” Peña Nieto who my buddy Espinoza and I were planning to see as we’d spoken in whispered code upstairs in my room at the St. Regis in New York. It is not he who necessitated weeks of clandestine planning. Instead, it’s a man of about my age, though he looks much younger, who, though absent any human calculus that may provide us a sense of anchored commonality. At who, four years old, in ‘64, I was digging for imaginary treasures, unneeded, in my parents’ middleclass American backyard while he was hand-drawing fantasy pesos that, if real, might be the only path for he and his family to dream beyond peasant farming. And while I was surfing the waves of Malibu at age nine, he was already working in the marijuana and poppy fields of the remote mountains of Sinaloa, Mexico. Today, he runs the biggest international drug cartel the world has ever known [Good detail!], exceeding even that of Pablo Escobar. He shops and ships by some estimates more than half of all the cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana that come into the United States.
They call him El Chapo.
Or “Shorty.” [I don’t think we need the translation.] Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera. The same El Chapo Guzman who only two months earlier had humiliated the Peña Nieto government and stunned the world with his extraordinary escape from Altiplano maximum-security prison through a n impeccably engineered [Enough with the adverbs, Sean.] mile-long tunnel.
This would be the second prison escape of the world’s most notorious drug lord, the first being 13 years earlier, from Puente Grande prison
, where he was smuggled out under the sheets of a laundry cart. [This is not the real story, as I told you. I fought my way out by killing 20 armed guards using the parts of a laundry cart. The government will not admit any of this! I would never ride in a laundry cart covered by sheets.] Since he joined the drug trade as a teenager, Chapo swiftly rose through the ranks, building a n almost mythic reputation [I don’t like the hedging. It’s sloppy and imprecise. Writers who hedge get clipped. That was a joke.]: First, as a cold pragmatist known to deliver a single shot to the head [Will your readers know that this means I killed them? I don’t think we are clear enough here how good a killer I am. We should be more clear, Sean.] for any mistakes made in a shipment, and later, as he began to establish the Sinaloa cartel, as a Robin Hood -like figure who provided much-needed services in the Sinaloa mountains, funding everything from food and roads to medical relief, feeding and educating thousands of children and inspiring the loyalty of millions from the beautiful sands of the Baja coast to the cool, mist-encircled mountains. By the time of his second escape from federal prison, he had become a figure entrenched in Mexican folklore.
In 1989, El Chapo dug the first subterranean passage beneath the border from Tijuana to San Diego
, and pioneered the use of tunnels to transport his products and to evade capture. I will discover that h[The first-person adds nothing here, amigo] His already accomplished engineers had been flown to Germany last year for three months of extensive additional training necessary to deal with the low-lying water table beneath the prison. A tunnel equipped with a pipe-track-guided motorcycle with an engine modified to function in the minimally oxygenized space, allowing El Chapo to drop through a hole in his cell’s shower floor , into its saddle and ride to freedom. It was this president of Mexico who had agreed to see us. [Love this.]
—– BREAK —–
You can soon read the entire edit on Medium, but here we’ll skip ahead to show the increasingly exasperated editorial notes of El Chapo:
Beneath his smile, there is a doubtlessness to his facial expression. [I’ve just had my translator beaten, but even afterward I still feel there is a better way to phrase this.] A question comes to mind as I observe his face
. Both as he speaks as while he listens. What is it that removes all doubt from a man’s eyes? Is it power? Admirable clarity? Or soullessness? Soullessness…wasn’t it that that my moral conditioning was obliged to recognize in him? Wasn’t it soullessness that I must perceive in him for myself to be perceived here as other than a Pollyanna? An apologist? I tried hard, folks. I really did. [Sean! I have to tell you I don’t think how you are perceived is a question you should try to explicitly answer in this space. It leaves me confused about your tone, and the reader may end up feeling stupid. Making your reader feel stupid is a crime. Let’s eliminate most of this.] I reminded myself over and over of the incredible [alleged!] life loss, the devastation existing in all corners of the narco world. “I don’t want to be portrayed as a nun,” El Chapo says. Though this portrayal had not occurred to me. [THAT WAS A JOKE] This simple man from a simple place, surrounded by the simple affections of his sons to their father, and his toward them, does not initially strike me as the big bad wolf of lore. His presence conjures questions of cultural complexity and context, of survivalists and capitalists, farmers and technocrats, clever entrepreneurs of every ilk, some say silver, and others lead. [What are you talking about, Sean?]
A server delivers a bottle of tequila. El Chapo pours each of us three fingers [An expression in English? It means something else to me.]. In toast, he looks to Kate. “I don’t usually drink,” he says, “but I want to drink with you.” After a raise of the glass, I take a polite sip. He asks me if many people in the United States know about him. “Oh, yeah,” I say, [Better to paraphrase?] and inform him that the night before leaving for Mexico, I had seen that the Fusion Channel was repeating its special-edition Chasing El Chapo. He seems to delight in the absurdity [Why absurd?] of this, and as he and his cohorts share a chuckle, I look to the sky and wonder how funny it would be if there were a weaponized drone above us [Sean, I have to say, we do not have the same sense of humor. Reword?]. We are in a clearing, sitting right out in the open. I down the tequila, and the drone goes away.
I give in to the sense of security offered by the calm of Chapo and his men. There is the pervasive feeling that if there were a threat, they would know it. We eat, drink, and talk for hours. He is interested in the movie business and how it works. He’s unimpressed with its financial yield. The P&L high side [A little jargony] doesn’t add up to the downside risk for him. He suggests to us that we consider switching our career paths to the oil business. He says he would aspire to the energy sector, but that his funds, being illicit but enormous, restrict his investment opportunities. He cites (but asks me not to name in print) a host of corrupt major corporations, both within Mexico and abroad. [Can you provide context clues here? There are many ways to say things without actually saying them, Sean.] He notes with delighted disdain several through which his money has been laundered, and who take their own
cynical slice of the narco pie [Lazy wording].
“How much money will you make writing this article?” he asks. I answer that when I do journalism, I take no payment. I could see that, to him, the idea of doing any kind of work without payment is a fool’s game. Unlike the gangsters we’re used to [Who is “we”???], the John Gotti
’s [No apostrophe—does Señor Wenner still pay for copy editors?] who claimed to be simple businessmen hiding behind numerous international front companies, El Chapo proudly sticks to an illicit game, proudly volunteering, “I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world. I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats.” [I do.]
He is entirely unapologetic. Against the challenges of doing business in such a clandestine industry he has built an empire [This is self-evident, no?]. I am reminded of press accounts alleging a hundred-million-dollar bounty the man across from me is said to have put on Donald Trump’s life. I mention Trump. El Chapo smiles, ironically saying, “Ah! Mi amigo!” [I said a lot more here that you leave out.] His unguarded will to speak freely, his comfort with his station in life and ownership of extraordinary justifications, conjure Tony Montana in Oliver Stone’s Scarface. It’s the dinner scene where Elvira, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, walks out on Al Pacino’s Tony Montana, loudly assailing him in a public place. The patrons at the restaurant stare at him, but rather than hide in humiliation, he stands and lectures them. “You’re all a bunch of fucking assholes. You know why? You don’t have the guts to be what you wanna be. You need people like me. You need people like me. So you can point your fucking fingers and say, ‘That’s the bad guy.’ So what’s that make you? Good? You’re not good. You just know how to hide … how to lie. Me? I don’t have that problem. Me?! I always tell the truth even when I lie. So say good night to the bad guy. C’mon. Last time you’re gonna see a bad guy like this again, lemme tell ya!” [This is how you choose to make your longest uninterrupted attempt to capture who I am? With a cheap movie comparison? I don’t wish to mince words; I am a man accustomed to indulgence, but this is going a little too far even for me. I don’t see at all how a spastic Al Pacino character illustrates the kind of control you saw me exert with only the slightest of gestures and speech. And you had the real thing in front of you for two days!—more than any stranger has laid eyes on me since I ordered my first beheading. I am starting to doubt whether you got me at all. I am starting to think we should kill this piece. Just the piece.]