The first time Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán escaped from a Mexican prison, he disappeared into the mountains of his home state of Sinaloa, intent on keeping a low profile while rebuilding the Sinaloa Cartel, the drug-trafficking organization he’s accused of leading. But following his second escape, he was less cautious, agreeing to meet with Mexican actress Kate del Castillo and the actor Sean Penn, who published a story about the encounter in Rolling Stone.
It took months of secret logistical planning, but in October 2015, Penn and Castillo flew to an undisclosed city where they met up with associates of El Chapo — including his son, Alfredo Guzmán — and boarded a single-engine airplane to fly into Guzmán’s jungle hideout. When the initial meeting finally took place, Guzmán sat down with Penn and Castillo for seven hours, as Penn made his case for a formal interview, while El Chapo boasted about his role as the world’s most prolific narco.
After that first meeting, Guzman agreed to sit down with Penn for another interview. However, with troops closing in on him, Guzman deemed that second meeting too dangerous, and instead answered selected questions on video.
In the 17-minute clip, Guzmán portrayed himself as a simple farmer and businessman, expounding on his life story and his thoughts on the drug trade, as well as his hope that death would not come in a hail of bullets like so many of his predecessors. He skipped several questions that had been provided, and offered no way to ask follow-ups when his answers weren’t sufficient.
The camera work was shaky, and the format — providing questions to be answered at his discretion — often allowed El Chapo to get away with trite, one-sentence answers. But the interview is now being entered as evidence for the prosecution.
It was not immediately clear Wednesday what the prosecution intends to do with the video. Several clips were entered into evidence during the testimony of a young FBI analyst, whose commentary was limited to her own role in the investigation, which consisted of downloading the clips from YouTube and burning them onto CDs for evidence.
The meeting with Penn and Castillo and the decision to film an interview are not likely to help Guzmán’s case, and they certainly did not help him stay free following his escape. According to Jack Riley, a retired DEA agent who was working as the DEA’s top cop in Chicago at the time of El Chapo’s 2014 capture, the brazenness of the visit — which authorities learned about long before the publication of the story or the video — reinvigorated the investigation, kicking Mexican authorities into gear. Here he was, flaunting his freedom and his ability to not only evade authorities, but to meet with A-list celebrities while doing it.
“A lot of people believed we would never capture him again, and he did too,” Riley says.
The government has assembled 16 cooperating witnesses, former associates, subordinates, and suppliers who have detailed at great length how they worked with Guzmán to ferry thousands of tons of drugs to eager customers in the United States. The trial, now in its second month, has included a parade of traffickers and confessed killers, all looking to trade their knowledge of Guzmán’s outfit for a chance of a reduced sentence and a place in the federal witness-security program.
That testimony picked up Tuesday afternoon, following the admission of the Rolling Stone interview, with Jorge Cifuentes, a Colombian narco who oversaw the logistics of cocaine shipments from Colombia’s North Valley Cartel to Guzmán’s men tasked with getting the drugs across the border.
Cifuentes, who described his duties as coordinating flights, buying fuel, and “making sure the Mexicans weren’t drunk,” took the stand once more Wednesday morning, and is expected to continue his testimony for the rest of the day.