Mexico seeks actor Sean Penn over secret meeting with ‘El Chapo’ as extradition process kicks off


The Hollywood-worthy recapture of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman took a wry turn Sunday as authorities sought to question Hollywood actor Sean Penn over his interview with the Mexican drug kingpin.

A federal official said the attorney general’s office wants to talk with Penn and Mexican actress Kate del Castillo about their alleged meeting with Guzman in October, three months before his recapture.

“That is correct, of course, it’s to determine responsibilities,” the official said on condition of anonymity, declining to provide more details.

A second federal official said it was unclear whether Penn and del Castillo, who brokered the meeting, committed a crime.

While a reporter could interview a drug cartel suspect, “they’re not journalists,” the official said.

White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said Penn’s meeting with Guzman “poses a lot of interesting questions for him and others involved in this so-called interview. We’ll see what happens.”

The U.S. rock magazine Rolling Stone on Saturday published the interview that Guzman gave to the actors in an undisclosed jungle clearing in Mexico.

Despite Penn’s cloak-and-dagger efforts to keep the gathering secret, a Mexican official said the meeting eventually helped authorities track down the Sinaloa drug cartel chief.

Guzman, 58, was arrested on Friday in a deadly military raid in the seaside city of Los Mochis, in his northwestern home state of Sinaloa.

Attorney General Arely Gomez said on Friday that Guzman had met with unnamed actors and producers to discuss making a biopic about himself. She said it was part of a “new line of investigation,” without elaborating.

But Mike Vigil, a former senior official at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said Penn is unlikely to face charges.

“I seriously doubt that charges will be brought against them even though Sean Penn took extraordinary steps to prevent authorities from using his phone to track the whereabouts of Chapo,” Vigil said.

“I am sure that authorities, however, will want to question both of them,” he said.

Rolling Stone posted an Oct. 2 picture showing the Oscar-winning actor shaking hands with the mustachioed drug cartel leader, who is wearing a blue shirt.

Penn writes that the 58-year-old Guzman gave him a “compadre” hug when they met and had a seven-hour sit-down followed by phone and video interviews.

“I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world,” Guzman reportedly told Penn in an admission of his criminal enterprise over sips of tequila.

“I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats,” Guzman said.

McDonough said Guzman’s boast to Penn about his trafficking exploits “is maddening.”

Rolling Stone also published a video showing Guzman without a mustache, saying he decided to go into drug trafficking after the age of 15 because there were “no job opportunities.”

“Unfortunately, where I grew up, there was and there is no other way to survive,” Guzman said to questions that Penn sent to him.

Asked if he feels responsible for the high level of addictions in the world, he said: “It’s false. The day that I don’t exist, it won’t reduce drug trafficking.”

In a text message exchange days after their meeting, Guzman discusses a Marine helicopter raid that almost captured him on Oct. 6. He downplayed injuries to his face and leg reported by the authorities, saying: “Not like they said. I only hurt my leg a little bit.”

Authorities said the marines did not shoot Guzman during the raid because he was accompanied by two women and a girl, but that he hurt himself by falling.

The Rolling Stone interview emerged after Mexican prosecutors announced that they would start proceedings to extradite Guzman to the United States, a reversal from President Enrique Pena Nieto’s refusal to send him across the border.

Mexican officials on Sunday formally launched the process to extradite Guzman, starting what could be a lengthy road full of legal appeals and maneuvering. Agents notified Guzman at the maximum-security Altiplano prison where he is being held.

The Attorney General’s Office said in a statement that Guzman was informed that he was wanted in the United States. The notification was done by agents of the international police agency Interpol, who served two arrest warrants to the jailed drug lord.

Mexican officials cautioned that the extradition process might take a while. Guzman’s attorney Juan Pablo Badillo has said the defense has already filed six motions to challenge extradition requests.

According to the Attorney General’s office, the U.S. filed extradition requests June 25, while Guzman was in custody, and another Sep. 3, after he escaped. The Mexican government determined they were valid within the extradition treaty and sent them to a panel of federal judges, who gave orders for detention on July 29 and Sept. 8.

Now that he has been recaptured, Mexico has to start processing the extradition requests anew, according to the law.

On Saturday, a Mexican federal law enforcement official said the quickest Guzman could be extradited would be six months, but even that is not likely because lawyers will file appeals. He said that the appeals are usually turned down, but each one means a judge has to schedule a hearing.

“That can take weeks or months, and that delays the extradition,” he said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment. “We’ve had cases that take six years.”

But Badillo vowed to appeal to the Supreme Court if necessary.

“He shouldn’t be extradited because Mexico has a fair Constitution,” Badillo told reporters outside Altiplano prison.

It was from that prison that Guzman escaped on July 11, sneaking into a hole in his cell’s shower that led to a 1.5-km tunnel outside the prison.

A federal official insisted that Altiplano remains a highly secure prison and that measures were taken to improve security, with metal rods placed under cell floors.

The world’s most wanted drug baron was arrested after a military raid on a house in Los Mochis in which five suspects died and one marine was wounded. Six people were detained in the operation.

Guzman and his security chief fled through the city’s drainage system, but they were caught later after they stole a car.

The house where El Chapo last sought refuge was not out of the way or out of the ordinary.

It occupies a corner lot on a busy four-lane boulevard in a neighborhood favored by local politicians. Guzman’s house looks more like a doctor’s office than a residence. The two-story building is set back from the street and completely obscured by the tops of thick trees. A Montessori school is around the corner.

The mother of Sinaloa Gov. Mario Lopez Valdez has a home two blocks away with a round-the-clock local police presence. Lopez said on Saturday that he was shocked by the fact Guzman was capture here in Los Mochis, a city of some 250,000 people near the shores of the Gulf of California.

“I’ve been here 50 years and in 50 years there was never a rumor, a hint, I never saw a story saying that this person could be found in Mochis or could be living in Mochis,” Lopez said.

But Guzman’s men appeared to have made preparations in case he ever needed the house.

More than a year ago, two brothers who had lived there while running a Baptist church in town either sold or rented the property, said a woman who has worked on the street for years, but declined to give her name for safety concerns. Until then it looked much like the other homes in the neighborhood, with an open carport protected by a metal gate.

But a month or two of intensive renovations transformed the house into an architecturally unremarkable but completely enclosed structure. Windows and glass doors with horizontal grating were installed and the new walls that advanced right to the sidewalk.

On Friday night, following a gun battle, the tiled foyer beyond that glass door was smeared with blood as white-suited forensic technicians worked inside.

The new owners also installed surveillance cameras. Still, for months after the renovations were completed the property appeared uninhabited. It was only after leaving work Thursday evening that the woman said she noticed a large black pickup parked in front of the home. She had never seen the truck before.

Around 4 a.m. on Friday, marines raided the house, which the government officials said had been under surveillance for weeks. Neighbors say an intense shootout ensued, lasting about two hours. They only ventured out later after hearing on the news what had happened. Five gunmen were killed and six arrested.

At least one of those killed fell in a house under construction on the other side of the block.

Heavily armed Marines kept onlookers at a distance from the crime scene on Saturday while a contingent of reporters blocked one lane of the boulevard a few blocks away from the house. At an intersection, someone had lifted a manhole cover from a storm sewer and found an abandoned assault rifle. Eventually a team of marines arrived, pulled what reporters remained out of the sewer and secured the rifle.

Guzman had apparently fled from the home into the sewer and emerged blocks away, where he commandeered a vehicle and continued his escape until authorities eventually caught him.

The area’s notoriety already has been growing. A family stopped and posed for photos outside the Hotel Doux on the outskirts of Los Mochis where marines took Guzman briefly after his capture.

Guzman’s recapture may have been a boost to the Mexican government, but his Sinaloa drug cartel lives on despite the loss of its “CEO,” analysts say.

The gang, whose empire stretches around the world, will retain its supply of cocaine from South America, keep feeding addicts in the United States and fill its coffers full of cash.

“The capture won’t have a significant impact other than a moral victory,” Mike Vigil, a former international operations chief at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said.

“It’s going to continue to function. It’s not even going to skip a beat,” Vigil said.

To make a real dent, the government should go after the cartel’s assets, bank accounts and properties while cleaning up the corruption that has aided the criminal enterprise, the former law enforcement official said.

“The infrastructure has been developed through decades, and the fact of the matter is that just because they get rid of the CEO doesn’t mean that it’s going to collapse,” he said.

While the 58-year-old Guzman now faces the prospect of being extradited to the United States, the cartel has another veteran leader ready to step in, Ismael Zambada, whose nickname is El Mayo and who is in his late 60s.

Guzman’s sons are active in the cartel, but Zambada — a man who never spent a night behind bars — is seen as the natural successor who has the respect of his peers.

Guzman himself told Sean Penn in the Rolling Stone interview that the business would go on without him.

“The day that I don’t exist, it won’t reduce drug trafficking,” Guzman said in a video, answering questions that Penn sent to him months before his capture. The pair also met in a secretive, sitdown interview.

Raul Benitez Manaut, a security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said the cartel continued to operate normally during the 17 months that Guzman was incarcerated until his escape on July 11.

“It’s not destroyed. It is weakened, but it can rebuild because it has Mayo Zambada,” Benitez said.

While he was in prison, Guzman reportedly told Penn, his business did not change. “Nothing has decreased. Nothing has increased,” he said.

Benitez said some rivals could now seek to seize on Guzman’s capture to gain terrain.

“The ones who must be happy are the Gulf cartel, because they are their main competitors,” the expert said.

The Sinaloa cartel dominates Mexico’s Pacific region while their rivals operate along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

The two gangs have fought bloody turf wars over control of the drug trade to the United States over the years, though the Gulf cartel has been weakened by the capture or deaths of its own leaders.

Gustavo Fondevila, a security expert at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching, said the Sinaloa cartel will avoid the fragmentation or infighting seen in other groups whose leaders have been arrested or killed.

“It’s not a cartel that has internal problems,” Fondevila said.

“This doesn’t diminish the work of the security agencies. Catching El Chapo was very important because you can’t let a character like that on the loose,” he said.

A federal official, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, said Guzman’s arrest was an “unprecedented success” for federal forces.

But, the official conceded, “there’s always more work to be done against organized crime.”