Joaquin Guzman, the Mexican drug lord known as El Chapo, started out in business not long after turning 6, selling oranges and soft drinks. By 15, he said in an interview conducted in a jungle clearing by actor and director Sean Penn for Rolling Stone magazine, he had begun to grow marijuana and poppies because there was no other way for his impoverished family to survive.
Now, unapologetically, he said: “I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world. I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats.”
Although his fortune, estimated at $1 billion, has come with a trail of blood, he does not consider himself a violent man. “Look, all I do is defend myself, nothing more,” he told Penn. “But do I start trouble? Never.”
The seven hours Guzman spent with Penn, and follow-up interviews by phone and video, which began in October while he was on the run, marked another surreal turn in his long-running effort to evade Mexican and U.S. authorities. Guzman, who was one of the world’s most wanted fugitives and had twice escaped jail, was captured in his home state of Sinaloa in northwest Mexico on Friday after a gunbattle with the authorities.
Guzman’s comments also marked a stark admission that he had operated a drug empire. Interviewed by a group of reporters in 1993 after a previous arrest, he denied that he had engaged in drug dealing. “I’m a farmer,” he said, listing his produce as corn and beans. He denied that he had used weapons or had significant funds.
The interview with Penn, believed to be the first Guzmán had given in decades, was published online Saturday night, along with a video portion of the interview.
The interviews were held in a jungle clearing atop a mountain at an undisclosed location in Mexico. Surrounded by more than 100 cartel troops and wearing a silk shirt and pressed black jeans, Guzmán sat down to dinner with Penn and Kate del Castillo, a Mexican actress who once played a drug kingpin in the soap opera “La Reina del Sur,” according to Rolling Stone.
Even though Mexican troops attacked his hideout in the days after the meeting, necessitating a narrow escape, Guzman continued the interview by BlackBerry Messenger and in a video delivered by courier to the pair later.
The story provides new details on his dramatic escape from prison last summer, when he disappeared through a hole in his shower into a mile-long tunnel that some engineers estimated took more than a year and at least $1 million to build. The engineers, Penn wrote, had been flown to Germany for specialized training. A motorcycle on rails inside the tunnel had been modified to run in the low-oxygen environment, deep underground.
Penn’s account is likely to deepen the concern among the Mexican authorities already embarrassed by Guzman’s multiple escapes, the months required to find him again and his status for some as something of a folk hero. Penn described being waved through a military checkpoint on his way to meet Guzmán, which Penn suggested was because the soldiers recognized Guzman’s son. Penn said he was also told, during a leg of the journey taken in a small plane equipped with a scrambling device for ground radar only, that the cartel was informed by an insider when the military deployed a high-altitude surveillance plane that might have spotted their movements.
In the end, the Mexican authorities said Friday night that Guzman had been caught partly because he had been planning a movie about his life and had contacted actors and producers, which had helped the authorities to track him down. Penn’s story says that Guzman, inundated with Hollywood offers while in prison, had indeed elected to make his own movie. Del Castillo, whom he contacted through his lawyer after she posted supportive messages on Twitter, was the only person he trusted to shepherd the project, according to the story. Penn heard about the connection with del Castillo through a mutual acquaintance and asked if he might do an interview.
Guzman asked Penn whether people in the United States were interested in him and laughed when Penn told him that the Fusion channel was repeating a documentary on him, “Chasing El Chapo.”
In a wider-ranging interview, for which Penn submitted questions that were put to Guzmán on video by one of his associates, he detailed his childhood and said he had tried drugs during his life but had never been an addict and had not touched them for 20 years. He said that he was happy to be free and that the pressure of evading the authorities was normal for him.
Pushed on the morality of his business, he said it was a reality “that drugs destroy. Unfortunately, as I said, where I grew up there was no other way and there still isn’t a way to survive, no way to work in our economy to be able to make a living.” If he disappeared, he said, it would make no difference to the drug business.
Asked about the violence attached to his work, he said in part it happened “because already some people already grow up with problems, and there is some envy and they have information against someone else. That is what creates violence.”
Guzman, Penn said, was familiar with the final days of Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug boss who had previously been the world’s most notorious and who died in a shootout with the authorities. How, he asked, did Guzman see his last days? “I know one day I will die,” he said. “I hope it’s of natural causes.”