There was a story in the news last week that was, on its face, reportage about drug smuggling out of Mexico and the United States' arcane drug laws. But the tale, written by actor Sean Penn for Rolling Stone, quickly morphed into a controversy over ethics in journalism. Penn, it seems, had been spirited to a secret location in the Mexican state of Sinaloa where he was granted an interview with Mexican drug lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who was, at the time of the interview, an escaped fugitive hiding from the Mexican authorities.
Mexican soap-opera actress Kate del Castillo helped to arrange the interview and accompanied Penn to El Chapo's hideout.
The interview with El Chapo occurred October 2nd. The drug kingpin was recently recaptured and is now safely (?) back in the same Mexican prison from which he escaped months earlier. News reports indicate that Mexico has yet to seal up the tunnel from which the criminal strolled to his freedom last year.
The government of Mexico, obviously a bit perturbed that a Hollywood film star could waltz into their country and spend hours interviewing their most wanted fugitive, has issued a statement crediting the interview with providing clues that led to El Chapo's capture. Sean Penn, on the other hand, said that the accusation is nothing more than Mexico trying to save some face after being outsmarted yet again by El Chapo, and that his interview had nothing to do with his eventual recapture.
Penn's article on the interview has been generally panned by critics who see the actor's writing abilities as limited, but it is not the quality of his writing, nor what he had to say, that is generating all of the controversy. Some critics see the actor's involvement with El Chapo as being some sort of glorification of drug-trafficking. Senator Marco Rubio, a U.S. Presidential contender, labeled it as "grotesque."
Support came from a surprising source when Fox News commentator Geraldo Rivera said that he would have certainly done the interview if he had been given the opportunity, and that he, too, would have agreed to keep El Chapo's location a secret.
Sean Penn, however, has a different take on the project, and he views it as a failure because people didn't seem to understand his intent in writing the piece. Penn said that his purpose was to start a debate on the buying and selling of drugs, as well as to define the actual effects of the war on drugs being carried out by the United States and various other countries.
The interview of El Chapo at his secret hideout, regardless of its literary merit, was certainly a journalistic coup - and no matter what Sean Penn thinks of the ultimate social impact, this much is likely: Jeff Spicoli would have enjoyed the swirl of controversy, and Mr. Hand would have secretly been proud!