The recapture of drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman took a surprise, Hollywood-like twist when a Mexican official said security forces located the world's most-wanted trafficker thanks to a secret meeting with U.S. actor Sean Penn.
Penn's article about his meeting with Guzman, who has twice escaped from Mexican maximum security prisons, appeared late Saturday on the website of Rolling Stone magazine. It was purportedly held at an undisclosed hideout in northern Mexico in late 2015, several months before Guzman's recapture Friday in Los Mochis, Sinaloa, after six months on the run.
The article reports that Guzman defends his work at the head of the world's biggest drug trafficking organization. When asked if he is to blame for high addiction rates, he responds: "No, that is false, because the day I don't exist, it's not going to decrease in any way at all. Drug trafficking? That's false."
A senior Obama administration official told television news shows on Sunday morning that Guzman's boasting about his heroin empire in the interview was "maddening."
"One thing I will tell you is that this braggadocious action about how much heroin he sends around the world, including the United States, is maddening," White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said on CNN's "State of the Union."
"We see a heroin epidemic, an opioid addiction epidemic, in this country," McDonough said. "We're going to stay on top of this with our Mexican counterparts until we get that back in the box. But El Chapo's behind bars — that's where he should stay."
When asked if the United States would make Penn available to Mexican authorities, McDonough responded that he didn't want to get ahead of any possible action, but that it "poses a lot of very interesting questions, both for him and for others involved in this ... so-called interview."
Penn didn’t have to tell law enforcement about his October meeting, according to legal scholars interviewed by the Los Angeles Times.
“He’s under no obligation to inform the authorities that he’s been in touch with El Chapo,” said Robert Weisberg, a professor at Stanford Law School, told the Times.
Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor and former federal prosecutor, compared Penn's legal situation to those of the journalists who conducted interviews with Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked documents.
Meeting with an interview subject is not against the law. “We don’t have a duty — necessarily — to help the government,” Levenson told the newspaper. “You just can’t get in the way.”
In the article, Penn describes taking elaborate security measures ahead of the clandestine meeting. But apparently they were not enough.
A Mexican federal law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to comment on the issue, told the Associated Press it was the Penn meeting that led authorities to Guzman in a rural part of Durango state in October.
Authorities who later raided the area decided not to open fire on Guzman because he was with two women and child. He was able to escape, but they were able to later track him to a house in Los Mochis where Mexican marines nabbed him after a shootout that left five people dead.
The official said the meeting between Penn and Guzman was held in Tamazula, a community in Durango state that neighbors Sinaloa, home of Guzman's drug cartel.
On Friday, Mexican Attorney General Arely Gomez said that Guzman's contact with actors and producers for a possible film about him helped give law enforcement a lead on tracking and capturing the world's most notorious drug kingpin.
In the Rolling Stone article, Penn wrote that Guzman was interested in having a movie filmed on his life. He said Guzman wanted Mexican actress Kate del Castillo, who facilitated the meeting between the men, involved in the project.
"He was interested in seeing the story of his life told on film, but would entrust its telling only to Kate," wrote Penn, who appears in a photo posted with the article shaking hands with Guzman whose face is uncovered
There was no immediate response from Penn's representatives to the Mexican official's comments.
Earlier Saturday, a federal law enforcement official said that Mexico is willing to extradite Guzman to the United States, a sharp reversal from the official position after his last capture in 2014.
"Mexico is ready. There are plans to cooperate with the U.S.," said the Mexican official, who spoke on condition anonymity because he wasn't authorized to comment.
But he cautioned that there could be a lengthy wait before U.S. prosecutors get their hands on Guzman. "You have to go through the judicial process, and the defense has its elements too."
Top officials in the party of President Enrique Pena Nieto also floated the idea of extradition, which they had flatly ruled out before Guzman's embarrassing escape from Mexico's top maximum security prison on July 11 — his second from a Mexican prison.
But even if Mexican officials agree, Guzman's attorney Juan Pablo Badillo told the Milenio newspaper that the defense already has filed six motions to challenge extradition requests.
"They can challenge the judge, challenge the probable cause, challenge the procedure," said Juan Masini, former U.S. Department of Justice attache at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico. "That's why it can take a long time. They won't challenge everything at once ... they can drip, drip, milk it that way."
Guzman faces drug trafficking charges in several U.S. states and American officials hoped to extradite him after he was captured in February 2014.
At the time, Mexico's government insisted it could handle the man who had already broken out of one maximum-security prison, saying he must pay his debt to Mexican society first.
Then-Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said the extradition would happen only after he finished his sentence in Mexico in "300 or 400 years."
Then Guzman escaped through an elaborate tunnel dug into Mexico's most secure lock-up on July 11, thoroughly embarrassing Pena Nieto's administration.
He also had escaped a similar maximum-security facility in 2001 while serving a 20-year sentence. Lore says he hid in a laundry cart, though many dispute that version. He spent 13 years on the lam.
Gomez said that one of Guzman's key tunnel builders led officials to the neighborhood in Los Mochis that authorities had been watching for a month. The team noticed a lot of activity at the houseWednesday and the arrival of a car early Thursday morning. Authorities were able to determine that Guzman was inside the house, she said.
The marines were met with gunfire as they closed in.
Gomez said Guzman and his security chief, Ivan Gastelum, a.k.a "El Cholo Ivan," were able to flee via storm drains and escape through a manhole cover to the street, where they commandeered getaway cars. Marines climbed into the drains in pursuit. They closed in on the two men based on reports of stolen vehicles and they were arrested on the highway.
According to a statement from the Mexican Attorney General's office, the U.S. filed extradition requests June 25, while Guzman was in custody, and another Sep. 3, after he escaped. The Mexican government determined they were valid within the extradition treaty and sent them to a panel of federal judges, who gave orders for detention on July 29 and Sept. 8, after Guzman had escaped.
Those orders were not for extradition but just for Guzman to begin the extradition hearing process. Now that he is recaptured, Mexico has to start processing the extradition requests anew, according to the law.
The quickest he could be extradited would be six months, said a federal official who spoke on condition of anonymity, but it's not likely because lawyers can file appeals. He said that they are usually turned down, but each one means a judge has to schedule a hearing.
"That can take weeks or months, and that delays the extradition," he said. "We've had cases that take six years."