The fact that Rollingstone interviewed El Chapo is insane to me. I know plenty of high profile criminals and murderers have been interviewed by major publications in the the past, but this is just off-the-wall how it went down — especially the timing. Just days after the drug kingpin was reportedly captured in Mexico, comes this lengthy interview with the guy. It’s really the only one that exists and covers this much ground with El Chapo. Honestly, it even puts fuel in the conspiracy theorist in me. Do they really have the man in custody… or…
It’s even more insane too me that actor Sean Penn and a Mexican actress known for supporting El Chapo were the ones to get this done. In the story, Sean writes about how the feature was months in the making, and that they were most likely being tracked by authorities the whole time. You have to read on, man.
Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, El Chapo, in a video interview he sent from an undisclosed location.
Disclosure: Some names have had to be changed, locations not named, and an understanding was brokered with the subject that this piece would be submitted for the subject’s approval before publication. The subject did not ask for any changes.
“The laws of conscience, which we pretend to be derived from nature, proceed from custom.” —Montaigne
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.
Flash frame: Why is this a paradox? It’s paradoxical because today’s Mexico has, in effect, two presidents. And among those two presidents, it is not Peña Nieto who Espinoza and I were planning to see as we’d spoken in whispered code upstairs. It is not he who necessitated weeks of clandestine planning. Instead, it’s a man of about my age, though absent any human calculus that may provide us a sense of anchored commonality. At 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, 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.” 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 an impeccably engineered 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. Since he joined the drug trade as a teenager, Chapo swiftly rose through the ranks, building an almost mythic reputation: First, as a cold pragmatist known to deliver a single shot to the head 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. 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 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.
I take no pride in keeping secrets that may be perceived as protecting criminals, nor do I have any gloating arrogance at posing for selfies with unknowing security men. But I’m in my rhythm. Everything I say to everyone must be true. As true as it is compartmentalized. The trust that El Chapo had extended to us was not to be fucked with. 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. I’d seen plenty of video and graphic photography of those beheaded, exploded, dismembered or bullet-riddled innocents, activists, courageous journalists and cartel enemies alike. I was highly aware of committed DEA and other law-enforcement officers and soldiers, both Mexican and American, who had lost their lives executing the policies of the War on Drugs. The families decimated, and institutions corrupted.
I took some comfort in a unique aspect of El Chapo’s reputation among the heads of drug cartels in Mexico: that, unlike many of his counterparts who engage in gratuitous kidnapping and murder, El Chapo is a businessman first, and only resorts to violence when he deems it advantageous to himself or his business interests. It was on the strength of the Sinaloa cartel’s seemingly more calculated strategies (a cartel whose famous face is El Chapo, but also includes the co-leadership of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada) that Sinaloa had become dominant among Mexico’s criminal syndicates, extending far beyond the rural northwestern state, with significant inroads to all principal border areas between the United States and Mexico – Juarez, Mexicali, Tijuana, and reaching as far as Los Cabos.
As an American citizen, I’m drawn to explore what may be inconsistent with the portrayals our government and media brand upon their declared enemies. Not since Osama bin Laden has the pursuit of a fugitive so occupied the public imagination. But unlike bin Laden, who had posed the ludicrous premise that a country’s entire population is defined by – and therefore complicit in – its leadership’s policies, with the world’s most wanted drug lord, are we, the American public, not indeed complicit in what we demonize? We are the consumers, and as such, we are complicit in every murder, and in every corruption of an institution’s ability to protect the quality of life for citizens of Mexico and the United States that comes as a result of our insatiable appetite for illicit narcotics.
As much as anything, it’s a question of relative morality. What of the tens of thousands of sick and suffering chemically addicted Americans, barbarically imprisoned for the crime of their illness? Locked down in facilities where unspeakable acts of dehumanization and violence are inescapable, and murder a looming threat. Are we saying that what’s systemic in our culture, and out of our direct hands and view, shares no moral equivalency to those abominations that may rival narco assassinations in Juarez? Or, is that a distinction for the passive self-righteous?
There is little dispute that the War on Drugs has failed: as many as 27,000 drug-related homicides in Mexico alone in a single year, and opiate addiction on the rise in the U.S. Working in the emergency and development field in Haiti, I have countless times been proposed theoretical solutions to that country’s ailments by bureaucratic agencies unfamiliar with the culture and incongruities on the ground. Perhaps in the tunnel vision of our puritanical and prosecutorial culture that has designed the War on Drugs, we have similarly lost sight of practice, and given over our souls to theory. At an American taxpayer cost of $25 billion per year, this war’s policies have significantly served to kill our children, drain our economies, overwhelm our cops and courts, pick our pockets, crowd our prisons and punch the clock. Another day’s fight is lost. And lost with it, any possible vision of reform, or recognition of the proven benefits in so many other countries achieved through the regulated legalization of recreational drugs.
Now on 50th Street, Espinoza and I enter the Japanese restaurant. El Alto sits alone in a quiet corner, beneath a slow-turning ceiling fan that circulates the scent of raw fish. He’s a big man, quiet and graceful, rarely speaking above a whisper. He’d been helpful to me on many previous excursions. He’s worldly, well connected and liked. Espinoza, speaking in Spanish, fills him in on our plans and itinerary. El Alto listens intently, squeezing edamame beans one at a time between his teeth. We considered this meeting our point of no return. We were either all in, or we would abandon the journey. We had weighed the risks, but I felt confident and said so. I’d offered myself to experiences beyond my control in numerous countries of war, terror, corruption and disaster. Places where what can go wrong will go wrong, had gone wrong, and yet in the end, had delivered me in one piece with a deepening situational awareness (though not a perfect science) of available cautions within the design in chaos.
It was agreed that I would go to L.A. the next day to coordinate with our principal point of contact to El Chapo. We ordered sake and indulged the kind of operating-room humor that might displace our imperfectly scientific concerns. Outside the restaurant windows, a chanting march of Mexican-Americans flowed by in protest against the Peña Nieto government’s asserted violations of human rights, having allowed their country of origin to fall prey to a narco regime.
Kate del Castillo, one of the most famous actors in Mexico, brokered the meeting. Uriel Santana
In January 2012, the Mexican film and television star Kate del Castillo, who famously played a drug lordess in Mexico’s popular soap opera La Reina del Sur, used Twitter to express her mistrust of the Mexican government. She stated that in a question of trust between governments and cartels, hers would go to El Chapo. And in that tweet, she expressed a dream, perhaps an encouragement to El Chapo himself: “Mr. Chapo, wouldn’t it be cool that you started trafficking with love? With cures for diseases, with food for the homeless children, with alcohol for the retirement homes that don’t let the elderly spend the rest of the days doing whatever the fuck they want. Imagine trafficking with corrupt politicians instead of women and children who end up as slaves. Why don’t you burn all those whorehouses where women are worth less than a pack of cigarettes. Without offer, there’s no demand. Come on, Don! You would be the hero of heroes. Let’s traffic with love. You know how to. Life is a business and the only thing that changes is the merchandise. Don’t you agree?” While she was ostracized by many, Kate’s sentiment is widely shared in Mexico. It can be heard in the narco corrido ballads so popular throughout the country. But her views, unlike those folkloric lionizations, are rather a continuity of her history of brave expression and optimistic dreams for her homeland. She had been outspoken on politics, sex and religion and is among the courageous independent spirits that democracies are built to protect and cannot exist without.
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