Sean Penn’s Naïve Encounter With ‘Dr. Death’ in Outer Space

How the movie star met the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel.

01.11.16 5:01 AM ET

Mexican journalist Julio Scherer used to say he would go to hell itself for an interview with the devil. And so he did.

Scherer was no run-of-the-mill reporter. From his combative magazine Proceso, Scherer led the journalistic fight against the corrupt regime of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (the PRI) during the second half of the 20th century. Revered by his peers and hated by the government, he was both a courageous war correspondent and a ruthless whistleblower. He was also a master interviewer.

In early 2010, Scherer got a call from the inferno.

Ismael “Mayo” Zambada, “El Chapo” Guzmán’s right-hand man, wanted to meet him.

Scherer headed to the mountains of northern Mexico for the interview.

Given his unmatched skills, Scherer’s interview with Zambada, the first ever granted by anyone in the upper echelon of the Sinaloa Cartel, should have revealed the inner workings of Mexico’s organized crime and the life of one of its most terrifying bosses.

It should have been memorable.

Yet, like Sean Penn’s interview with Zambada’s boss a few years later, Scherer’s raised questions about information versus glorification, about the seduction of a big story and the tyranny of controlled access when the press hungers after a scoop.

Like chess, the journalistic interview is a complex game with a simple set of rules. Before the interview begins, the interview belongs to both the interviewer and interviewee. Once it begins and once it ends, the interview belongs solely to the reporter.

While both the journalist and his subject may discuss possible topics and areas of common interest, questions belong only to the reporter. And, like cards at the poker table, they are to be carried close to one’s chest. The journalist must be free to ask what he pleases and, crucially, to follow-up when he pleases. And, of course, the interviewee should have absolutely no say in what gets published; no veto, no editing privileges: zero.

That’s the way it’s supposed to work, and who knew that better than Scherer, who was almost 80 years old, and enormously wise in the ways of the journalistic world?

Yet when Scherer went to meet Zambada, he never had a chance to turn on his tape recorder. After Zambada greeted him cordially, inviting him to have some breakfast, Zambada delayed the interview. A few hours later, when the time came to sit down and talk, Zambada stopped Scherer from recording. He also declined to answer a number of questions, including how he got he got his start as a drug dealer (“Just so,” was his reply).

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Instead, Zambada lied. He told Scherer he was just a farmer whose importance in the criminal world had been exaggerated. “Drugs are part of society like corruption,” he said. This has been the boilerplate of gangsters at least since the days of Al Capone.

Scherer couldn’t press Zambada on the particular savagery of the Sinaloa Cartel, his dealings with politicians, or anything remotely uncomfortable. They wrapped up the interview.

Before Scherer left, Zambada asked for a picture. The drug lord puffed up his chest, fixed his hat and hugged his guest. The photograph would appear on Proceso’s cover a few days later, for Zambada, a perfect coup, for the venerable Scherer, a rare, perhaps exceptional, defeat in a life of journalistic prowess.

What to make, then, of Sean Penn’s exchange with Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán?

We know, from Penn’s long article for Rolling Stone, that the interview followed roughly the same path as Scherer’s meeting with Zambada. Like Scherer, Penn was not allowed to record his first and only face-to-face meeting with his subject: “I feel naked without pen and paper. So I only ask questions one couldn’t forget the answers to,” he writes.

After that first encounter, circumstances—or, more likely, Guzmán’s cunning—force Penn to submit his questions via BlackBerry Messenger, having the actor conduct the interview in absentia.

By Penn’s own admission, “El Chapo” answered what he wanted in whatever length and manner he pleased. “Without being present,” Penn admits, “I could neither control the questioning nor prod for elaborations to his responses.”

The result is eerily similar to the Scherer-Zambada affair: Joaquín Guzmán sees himself as a man who turned to drug dealing as a desperate act of survival, a family man who cares for his madrecita and his children and does not do drugs. “El Chapo” insists he’s not violent but merely “defends” himself.

Like Zambada, “El Chapo” says drugs are part of Mexican culture (“human” even): The business didn’t start with him nor will it end when he’s gone.

Far from the man who has lead the world’s most formidable cartel, worth billions of dollars with operations in 50 countries, responsible for at least 10,000 murders in Mexico since 2006, Guzmán says he’s not to be blamed for drug addiction or violence. In fact, he says to Penn, he’s “not looking for problems in any way. In any way.”

By Rolling Stone’s own admission, the magazine showed Penn’s article to “El Chapo” before publication. “The subject did not ask for any changes,” the editors clarify.

“El Chapo” has won.

While Sean Penn’s scoop is undeniable, so is his failure as a journalist and his naïveté. The only news here is that Penn met Chapo. By granting Joaquín Guzmán complete control of their interview, Sean Penn has become a useful idiot in the ultimate goal of Mexico’s narcocultura founding father. Perhaps unknowingly, Penn has helped Guzmán enrich what he cares for the most: his own legend.

There is no new information; there is only glorification.

The devil, it turns out, laughs last.