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Sean Penn

The actor speaks to Charlie Rose in his first interview since his controversial meeting with drug kingpin Joaquin Guzman, known as "El Chapo"
Sean Penn 13:52

The following is a script from "Sean Penn" which aired on Jan. 17, 2016. Charlie Rose is the correspondent. David Schneider, producer.

When Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman slipped out of Mexico's most secure prison through a secret tunnel last July, the drug lord triggered an international manhunt. It was his second escape from Mexico's most secure prison -- military and law enforcement on both sides of the border brought every tool at their disposal to the search. So who should find him, but Oscar-winning actor and self-described "experiential journalist," Sean Penn -- with the help of a Mexican actress.

The story of Penn's visit with El Chapo, appearing in Rolling Stone, caused a sensation. It was published after Mexican Marines raided Guzman's Sinaloa hideout and recaptured him. Thursday night, for the first time, Sean Penn talked with us about his encounter with El Chapo. He had a lot to say.


Charlie Rose: Why does Sean Penn want to go to Mexico to interview a drug lord who's escaped from prison with a notorious reputation for doing terrible things and supplying a lot of drugs to America? What's the point?

Sean Penn: I think the policy of the war on drugs, which so deeply affects all of our lives, seems not to change. It seems to be so unmovable. And it occurs to me that often, because we want to simplify the problem, and we want to look at a black hat and put our resources into focusing on the bad guy and na-- and-- and-- ju-- and I understand that. I absolutely understand justice and the rule of law. And so I do what I call experiential journalism. I don't have to be the one that reports on the alleged murders or the amount of narcotics that are brought in. I go and I spend time in the company of another human being, which everyone is. And I make an observation and try to parallel that, try to balance that with the focus that we-- that I believe we-- we tend to put too much emphasis on. So, when I understood from colleagues of mine that there was a potential for contact with him, it just struck me that I wanted to--

Charlie Rose: To do what, Sean? I mean I don't understand that. Because, I mean clearly-- drugs are a huge problem in America. There's a huge consumption of drugs in America. It's a terrible thing in what it does to our society. But what is going to see him gonna do about it, other than somehow-- getting a lot of attention.

Sean Penn: I feel complicit in the suffering that is going on, because I'm not thinking about it every day. I'm not watching these laws that are showing no progression, these rehabilitations that are not happening. So I'm looking the other way. I find that equally complicit with murders in Juarez.

Charlie Rose: You think we demonize El Chapo too much?

Sean Penn: I think that there's-- to over-demonize any human being is not in our best self interest. Like it or not, we're married to 'em. They're of our time. They're affecting us. So like a marriage, you know, you might want a divorce.

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Edgard Garrido/Reuters

Charlie Rose: OK, let me--

Sean Penn: But you've got to look at this person as a person.

Charlie Rose: OK.

Sean Penn: Or you're never going to have-- or if the-- if the argument-- if-- if all we aim to understand is that this is a very bad person, then let's not understand anything else.

Charlie Rose: You wanted to have a conversation about the policy of a war on drugs.

Sean Penn: That's right.

Charlie Rose: That was the motivating factor for you--

Sean Penn: With the reader. With him, I wanted to sit, observe, ask him questions. And then use that as asn anchor into this article.

Charlie Rose: What did he say? Why did he accept?

Sean Penn: Well, I can't read his mind.

Charlie Rose: Yeah, but you talk to him, and you know the characters involved.

Sean Penn: Uh-huh (affirm). I would say that, you know, from the conversation that was had, he, in several ways, wanted to be on the record.

How Sean Penn came to be on the record with El Chapo is a tale. Penn knew of a Mexican TV and movie star who had caught Chapo's attention. Kate del Castillo had once played a drug lord on a telenovela. Chapo was a fan. They kept in touch through texts and social media. Last August, del Castillo and Penn met and she agreed to arrange a meeting with El Chapo. In October, Penn, del Castillo and two others travelled by small plane and truck into cartel-controlled territory. They were escorted by one of El Chapo's sons.

Sean Penn: I was baffled at his will to see us. Nonetheless--

Charlie Rose: Because you thought he might be putting himself at risk?

Sean Penn: Yeah. I mean we followed the protocols laid out by them in terms of c-- in terms of communications and so on, as well as travel.

Charlie Rose: So as far as you know, you had nothing to do, and-- and your visit had nothing to do with his-- recapture?

Sean Penn: The things-- here's the things that we know. We know that the Mexican government has-- is-- is-- they've been very humiliated by the original escape.

Charlie Rose: Escape.

Sean Penn: They were clearly very humiliated by the notion that someone found him before they did. Well, nobody found him before they did. We didn't f-- we're not smarter than the DEA or the Mexican intelligence. We had a contact upon which we were able to facilitate an invitation that allowed us in.

What we know now from transcripts of texts released by the Mexican government is that El Chapo was interested in the actress. He didn't even know who Sean Penn was.

Charlie Rose: Was it naive of you, naive, to believe that you could come to Mexico, meet with Kate del Castillo, and go see El Chapo without somebody knowing about it?

Sean Penn: I assumed they knew about it. And I say so in the article. I was stunned that he would risk our trip. I was stunned.

El Chapo met with them and he agreed to a future meeting including a formal interview with Sean Penn eight days later. When the manhunt grew more intense, the face-to-face interview became too risky. Instead, Penn sent a list of questions and El Chapo recorded his answers. The questions were not confrontational. They included El Chapo growing up in poverty and who he blamed for the drug problem.

Charlie Rose: You understand that a lot of people, a lot of people would have wanted you, in this conversation, in a sense, to see how he would react if you wanted to hold him accountable for his life.

Sean Penn: Uh-huh. (affird)

Charlie Rose: Did you--

Sean Penn: Or-- or--

Charlie Rose: --consider that? Or?

Sean Penn: It just means that, if somebody wants me to ask the questions that they want me to ask--

Charlie Rose: Right.

Sean Penn: Well, there's that little problem we run into in life. They're not me. So any experiential--

Charlie Rose: And you had no-- but-- but just tell me this. Did you have no interest? You didn't have any interest in understanding how he justified, felt about, made decisions, organized the cartel--

Sean Penn: I have a fascination--

Charlie Rose: --that is so powerful?

Sean Penn: --with all of that.

Penn's Rolling Stone article is a 10,000 word, sometimes rambling, often gripping account of the El Chapo meeting. It was published the day after Chapo was recaptured and it quickly became the headline.

Sean Penn: My article should not have made this much noise. El Chapo should not have been this popular a figure to read about.

Charlie Rose: Well, he was a pop-- he was a figure that people read about and talked about before you ever went to Mexico.

Sean Penn: Oh, I'm well aware of that.

Charlie Rose: What about those who say, "This is his ego. He likes being in the center of this. He's an adventurer. He thinks of himself as a writer in the tradition of Hunter Thompson with a kind of experiential quality to him." You accept any of that?

Sean Penn: Do I accept that people feel that way?

Charlie Rose: Yeah.

Sean Penn: I absolutely accept that they feel that way.

Charlie Rose: And are they right?

Sean Penn: No, they're not right.

On January 8th, when the Mexican Marines finally raided El Chapo's hideout as seen in this video, they caught him as he attempted still another escape. Chapo's arrest raised questions about whether the actor and actress had been tracked and helped lead the Mexican Marines to the drug lord. Mexico's attorney general claimed they had been quote, "essential."

Charlie Rose: Do you believe that the Mexican government released this because they wanted to see you blamed, and to put you at risk?

Sean Penn: Yes.

Charlie Rose: They wanted to encourage the cartel to put you in their crosshairs?

Sean Penn: Yes.

Charlie Rose: Are you fearful for your life?

Sean Penn: No.

Charlie Rose: Do you believe the cartel wants to do harm to you because they have accepted the idea that the visit that you made somehow led to the recapture of El Chapo?

Sean Penn: They've been in this business a long time. They've dealt with law enforcement issues for a long time. They've dealt with misinformation for a long time. There are irrational people. And so I can't say for sure, you know, that there's no risk.

Charlie Rose: Have you heard from anybody in the cartel?

Sean Penn: No.

Charlie Rose: What's it been like for you? What are your concerns?

Sean Penn: I'll be, you know, as honest as I can be with you about this. I can be very, you know, flamboyant in my words sometimes. I can get angry like many people can. I'm really sad about the state of journalism in our country. It has been an incredible hypocrisy and an incredible lesson in just how much they don't know and how disserved we are. You know, the-- of course I know that there are people who don't like me out of the gate, whether it's political or--

Charlie Rose: You're not without controversy.

Sean Penn: Not without controversy. Fair enough. Again, journalists who want to say that I'm not a journalist. Well, I want to see the license that says that they're a journalist.

Sean Penn did commit something of a mortal sin for most journalists by allowing the most wanted man in the world to approve his story.

Sean Penn: What was brokered for me to have the interview with El Chapo was that I would finish the article, send it to him, and if he said no, then that was no harm, no foul to any reader.

Charlie Rose: It would never be printed.

Sean Penn: It would never be printed.

It was printed and soon after, Penn's article was being criticized for being sympathetic to a killer responsible for the deaths of thousands and the biggest drug supplier in the world.

Sean Penn: I was not present to report on the things people would like to see reported on. I was not present at murders. I was not present to see narcotics. I was not present to that. What I was present for I wrote. I wrote that to use it as a pillar for an article about the policy of the war on drugs.

Charlie Rose: You're not naive. And you knew that if Sean Penn went to see a drug lord on the run, and had a conversation with him with a Mexican actress who he was smitten with, you knew that's a story. You knew that's a big story. You're not naive. And now you're blaming people for wanting to know more about it--

Sean Penn: It's-- it's-- ch--

Charlie Rose: It's inevitable.

Sean Penn: No, no, no, no. My problem with people is that they think they know more about it. Let's go to the big picture of what we-- what we all want. We all want this drug problem to stop. And if you are in the moral right, or on the far left, just as many of your children are doing these drugs, just as many of your brothers and sisters, your mothers and fathers, the teachers at school, are doing these drugs. Just as many. And how much time have they spent in the last week since this article come out, talking about that? One percent? I think that'd be generous.

Charlie Rose: You're saying there's not much dialogue about--

Sean Penn: My article failed.

Charlie Rose: --as a result of El Chapo.

Sean Penn: Let me be clear. My article has failed--

Charlie Rose: To?

Sean Penn: --in that the ques-- in-- in-- in that everything that's spoken about is everything but what I was trying to speak about.

Charlie Rose: You regret that people--

Sean Penn: That I failed that.

Charlie Rose: But-- but you're really saying, I-- what I really regret is not anything that did. I regret that people misunderstood what I did.

Sean Penn: That's what I'm saying, yeah.

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