OPINION
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Let’s not forget about the dead journalists, Mr Penn

The actor is free to use his material from his ‘El Chapo’ meeting in any way he wants, but the claim he went as a journalist crosses the line

Actor Sean Penn during a benefit held to help Haiti.
Actor Sean Penn during a benefit held to help Haiti.Matt Winkelmeyer / AFP

He’s a tough guy with a tender side; an ugly man who’s nevertheless attractive; and an actor who throws out the truth like punches.

He is Sean Justin Penn. With two Oscars and one Golden Globe under his belt, the 55-year-old is a star who, in the arms of blonde Hollywood goddesses, plays the role of dissident and believes that life is like a boxing ring.

He is the same guy who threw the world – and possibly himself – a punch by publishing an account of his secret meeting with the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, Joaquín El Chapo Guzman Loera.

It was a show of respect granted him by ‘Rolling Stone’ and, as expected, the criminal kindly responded without changing a comma

It was the kind of interview that almost every journalist – whether they admit it or not – dreams about: a knife-edge encounter, where precautionary measures were almost non-existent, but which in the hands of the turbulent Penn became anything but journalism.

His seven hours with El Chapo evolved into an obsessive 10,000-word firsthand account in which he talked about his flatulence and his idealization of a drug dealer who sank Mexico into an abyss of terror.

“Describing the meeting as an interview is an insult to journalists who have died in the name of truth,” said veteran reporter Alfredo Corchado, who has spent half his life on the border and threatened by the cartels, the day Penn’s story came out in Rolling Stone magazine.

No one in Mexico has praised Penn’s work. There is no doubt that his account – in essence, an ego trip for the actor – has generated enormous interest. It includes details that reveal the inner workings of Mexico’s drug trade, while the video allows us to see and hear for the very first time this nasally voiced criminal in a silk shirt, who some want to raise up to the status of legend.

Attacking Penn over his meeting with El Chapo is a mistake. The actor is free to do whatever he wants with his material, and his opinions are his own.

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But his argument that he went to the meeting as a journalist crosses the line. Apart from being a dinner guest, no in-person interview took place, nor were there any follow-up questions. All there is is a list of tame questions read out to El Chapo by an aide before the camera while roosters crow in the background.

In other words, there were no journalistic controls and, in any case, everything was conducted in accordance with the demands of the drug trafficker, as the fact that the final text was sent to El Chapo for his final approval demonstrates.

It was a show of respect granted to him by Rolling Stone and, as expected, the criminal kindly responded by not changing a single comma.

Practicing journalism in Mexico can be a matter of life and death. Many reporters know this. Every day journalists in the Mexican states of Sinaloa, Durango, Tamaulipas and Guerrero go out looking for stories in extreme conditions.

They are not famous or well paid; they don’t even earn the respect of the authorities that they make feel uncomfortable. They are threatened and insulted. Sometimes they are beaten up and, on other occasions, they are murdered. It could come in the form of a gunshot at the door of the newsroom or a kidnapping in their own home.

Sean Penn is no hero. He traveled to the heart of darkness escorted by hitmen. He had dinner with El Chapo and received his praise. He lived a night to remember and fashioned a story mostly for personal glory. The others – the unknown journalists who fight and die while doing their jobs – never had that same luck.

English version by Martin Delfín.