Why Mexican and Border Journalists Are Pissed About Sean Penn's “El Chapo” Guzmán Story

On Friday afternoon a bombshell story broke out of Mexico: Just months after he'd tunneled out of a maximum security prison, Mexican authorities had re-captured Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, the infamous leader of Mexico's hulking Sinaloa drug cartel.

On Saturday Rolling Stone magazine made a strange addendum to the Chapo Guzmán story, publishing the account of actor Sean Penn, who, with the help of a Guzmán-sympathizing telenovela star, somehow managed to meet the notorious cartel leader months before he was rearrested during a bloody firefight Friday in his home state of Sinaloa.

The criticism of both Penn as a “journalist” and Rolling Stone for its handling of the story has been deafening — perhaps, most important, from reporters in Mexico and along the border who've covered the consequences of Guzmán's insatiable appetite for power.

One of those journalists is Breitbart Texas writer Ildefonso Ortiz, who for many years has covered the raging violence in Mexico as a reporter based in Texas's Rio Grande Valley. Poncho, as he's known, and I crossed paths when I worked as a grunt reporter in the Valley covering cops and crime. Over time, he has established himself as a critical source for news coming from northern Mexico's volatile border region, particularly the northeastern states of Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas. (For any liberals or progressives out there who want to dismiss Breitbart Texas as just another mouthpiece for right-wing invective, Ortiz's hiring is a sign the organization is serious about original reporting from an under-covered and critically important region of the country.)

This morning Ortiz, who's been reporting on the El Chapo story since news of his re-arrest broke Friday, told me that Rolling Stone's story is “insulting” to journalists in Mexico and along the border who risk violent retribution from drug gangs simply for accurately reporting the news.

“I have friends who have been kidnapped,” Ortiz says. “Sadly enough, I have had friends go missing just because they were real journalists, because they weren't playing around and asked too many hard questions of politicians and drug traffickers…That's why the media has been so silenced in Mexico.”

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more than 60 reporters have been killed or disappeared in Mexico over the past decade as large parts of the country have fallen victim to bloody, protracted turf wars over lucrative drug-smuggling routes. Reporters Without Borders has called Mexico “one of the world's most dangerous countries for journalists,” where reporters face routine death threats from organized crime syndicates and corrupt public officials alike.

Much of the heat directed at Rolling Stone comes from the magazine's inexplicable decision to, as stated in a disclosure preceding Penn's 10,000-word account of meeting Guzmán, submit the piece “for the subject's approval before publication.” No one from Rolling Stone has even bothered to publicly explain how higher-ups justified the decision (we've received no response from the magazine's spokeswoman). That Guzmán, according to the magazine, asked for no changes likely points more to Penn's skill as an interviewer and journalist than to any tolerance Guzmán might have for critical press coverage.

As Alfredo Corchado, the Dallas Morning News's legendary Mexico City bureau chief for nearly two decades, wrote on Twitter reacting to the Rolling Stone piece: 

Ultimately, reporters like Ortiz say the problems with Penn's story go even beyond the Hollywood-infused narco-worship it seems to perpetuate. Ortiz is among many who contend that El Chapo, perhaps more than any other figure, is responsible for the bloodshed that continues across Mexico. His cartel's attempted takeovers in Juarez, Nuevo Laredo and Tamaulipas have led to extended periods of record violence across large swaths of the border.

“Don't get me wrong, every journalist that writes about cartels would love to have an interview with him because of how important a figure he is in all of this,” Ortiz says. “But it would have to be a real interview, with hard questions — the kind of stuff that, unfortunately, puts people in danger in Mexico today, in large part because of people like him.”

This list from Gawker's Melissa Cronin of the most nauseating lines from Penn's piece underscores a more fundamental problem with Penn's “journalism": It's mostly about him, not the drug lord on the run to whom he'd scored unprecedented access. We learn that Sean Penn worries about his dick getting cut off while he's taking a piss; that he can't keep from farting in the presence of a notorious drug lord; that Penn is a Luddite who can't be bothered with laptops or other basic communication technology.

We also learn that the same actor who once said journalists critical of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez should be imprisoned came away from his encounter with Guzman, a man who's claimed to have murdered thousands of people, with “affirmation of the dumb-show of demonization that has demanded such an extraordinary focus of assets toward the capture or killing of any one individual black hat.”

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