A movie, a drug lord and an actress: How Kate del Castillo was investigated in Mexico over ‘El Chapo’
The Mexican government’s probe into the relationship between the television star and the head of the Sinaloa cartel lasted 17 months and resulted in a lawsuit over state harassment
It all started, according to court records, with an anonymous email received on September 24, 2015, almost three months after Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s remarkable escape from the maximum-security El Altiplano penitentiary: the message alerted the authorities that Mexican actress Kate del Castillo was planning on meeting the head of the Sinaloa cartel because she wanted to make a movie about his life. “On September 25, 2015, she will meet him in the village of La Tuna, in Badiraguato, Sinaloa,” the transcription reads. “You only need to follow her or tap her phones to verify what I am telling you.” More than a tip, the message was almost an instruction. From that day on, the actress officially became a target of Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office (PGR), and she remained on their radar long after the drug lord was recaptured several months later, in January 2016.
A review of the investigation the authorities opened against Kate del Castillo at the end of 2015, to which EL PAÍS has had access, leaves question marks over the motives or the clues that drove the investigation in the aftermath of El Chapo’s fall: for 17 months, the PGR deployed wiretaps, detectives, tax audits, witness statements and the cooperation of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to see if it was possible to charge Del Castillo with crimes including organized crime and concealment on the basis of her exchanges and her meeting with El Chapo. But their efforts were frustrated. The evidence available failed to link Del Castillo with the Sinaloa cartel or to prove that El Chapo’s money was behind a tequila she promoted, but the process gave rise to a soap opera of leaked messages, accusations, lawsuits and a bizarre meeting between one of the most powerful drug lords in the world, renowned US actor Sean Penn, Del Castillo and two Hollywood producers.
The genesis of that meeting is well known: in 2012, Del Castillo published an open letter on Twitter in which she stated she trusted El Chapo more than the Mexican government while asking the Sinaloa boss to start “trafficking with love.” Guzmán took note and Del Castillo became an obsession as he sought to achieve his longtime dream: turning his life story into a movie. The first contact between the actress and El Chapo’s lawyers came in 2014, while Guzmán was in custody at El Altiplano. From there, the actress and the drug lord – with his lawyers as intermediaries – began a correspondence that was followed keenly by the authorities. On the day the anonymous message was received, according to the documents, federal police were dispatched to airports in Mexico City and Guadalajara to find out if Del Castillo had any reservations. Coincidentally, she did: the actress was due to fly to Guadalajara.
When she arrived, she was tailed by police to her hotel, and once inside the hotel restaurant, the investigators took a table next to the one where Del Castillo was in conversation with one of El Chapo’s lawyers. They were able to pick up fragments of the exchange, such as Del Castillo saying it would “be an honor” to be El Chapo’s partner.
According to the chats that prosecutors later leaked to the press, September 25 was the day that Del Castillo told El Chapo’s lawyers that she wanted to bring Sean Penn with her when they met in person to discuss the possibility of making a movie. The lawyers apparently had to explain to Guzmán who Penn was – “the one out of 21 Grams,” the drug lord was informed. They also explained he was an activist who had been “critical of the Bush administration.” El Chapo accepted the meeting with Penn, Del Castillo and the producers and gave instructions for the actress to be provided with a phone while setting a date for the encounter: October 2 or 3.
In the days following the meeting between Del Castillo and El Chapo’s lawyers, the police kept a close eye on the airports. On October 2, Del Castillo landed in Guadalajara on a private jet accompanied by Penn. Police followed them to their hotel, where they left their luggage and left again in three vehicles, headed for Tepic, in Nayarit state. On the way, the police saw the convoy enter an opening “where an airstrip was located, watching two light aircraft take off moments later.” That was as far as the officers got that day. What happened next has been relayed by Del Castillo in Proceso magazine, and Penn, in Rolling Stone.
On October 2 and 3, 2015, the actors met with El Chapo in a mountainous area of Mexico, the location of which was not revealed, and where over 100 members of the Sinaloa cartel were on hand to keep watch on them. In his lengthy, self-indulgent and widely questioned account in Rolling Stone, published the day after El Chapo was recaptured on January 10, 2016, Penn talks about the drug lord’s “warm smile” and “undeniable charisma.” The meeting turned out to be the origin of a falling out between Del Castillo and Penn, who leveled accusations at each other, as well as a source of public humiliation for the Mexican government of Enrique Peña Nieto: three months after escaping from a maximum-security jail, the most-wanted criminal in North America was drinking tequila and bragging about his illegal exploits with a Hollywood actor and a Mexican television star under the noses of the federal authorities.
When the attorney general learned that EL Chapo had been recaptured after six months on the run, he said an important part of pinpointing his hideout had been “discovering that Guzmán was intending to make a biographical movie, which led him to establish conversations with actors and producers.” In one way or another, his assertion made everybody involved part of the problem.
Obsessions and betrayal
After the secret meeting between the drug lord and the actors, the PGR told newspaper Reforma that both were under investigation. However, only Del Castillo had been a person of interest to the authorities for several months previously, and a key element of accessing confidential details about her was El Chapo’s lawyer, Andrés Granados. One of the first things the PGR did after launching the investigation was to ask for access to chats on the lawyer’s cellphone. A warrant was duly issued and Granados’s private communications made available. On his cell were photos of him and Del Castillo and conversations between them. Among these was confirmation that Guzmán had authorized a notarial power of attorney for Del Castillo for litigations, payments and negotiations. When questioned by police, Granados confirmed this, but did not say if it had been formalized. What El Chapo was offering, several media outlets reported, were the exclusive rights to make the movie.
Del Castillo has always maintained that this was the motive for her relationship with El Chapo. “I thought it was pure gold for my career, to be able to do something big and make things happen,” she said in a 2018 interview. But the capture of Guzmán and the Rolling Stone interview turned everything upside down. According to Del Castillo, she had no idea Penn was intending to interview El Chapo until they were in the company of the drug lord, which she felt was a betrayal of trust. Del Castillo says as much in the 2017 documentary The Day I Met El Chapo: The Kate Del Castillo Story, which also implied that Penn’s involvement in the meeting contributed in some way to the capture of the Sinaloa cartel kingpin.
The actor’s lawyers were concerned enough to tell Netflix that releasing the documentary would place their client’s life in danger. In the 2020 book El Jefe: The Stalking of Chapo Guzmán, New York Times journalist Alan Feuer questions the idea that Penn may have collaborated in some way while also casting doubt on the assertion of the Mexican authorities that the meeting between El Chapo and the actors was a key element in his recapture. In reality, says Feuer, the Mexican and US security forces already knew where El Chapo was hiding, and the visit of Penn and Del Castillo was a hindrance rather than a help.
Still, the Attorney General’s Office maintained its version of events and pressed on with its investigation, asking the United States Department of Justice Office of International Affairs and the DEA for information. The latter provided a report in which it stated: “Neither of the aforementioned people have criminal records for drug trafficking on our databases.” In Mexico, the PGR asked for Del Castillo’s bank accounts and tax records while scouring the country’s 32 federal entities for any land or property in her name. The National Institute of Migration was asked for records of all of Del Castillo’s flights in and out of the country and the legal representative of BlackBerry Limited was asked to provide sheets of phone records detailing the numbers used by the actress.
The authorities invested a lot of time and resources in trying to prove that the star of television soap La Reina del Sur (or, The Queen of the South) had gone into business with El Chapo and that the drug lord had provided money for the patent on her brand of tequila, Honor del Castillo, and for the movie about his life to be made, but the statements they collated gradually unraveled this theory. Despite this, prosecutors continued the investigation and leaked what was no longer useful for their case to the press, causing a media frenzy of speculation about the nature of Del Castillo’s relationship with El Chapo.
On February 19, 2017, the public prosecutor in charge of the case analyzed all of the evidence and decided to close the investigation. In the report issued, after examining over 200 pieces of evidence, it was stated no criminal action would be brought against Del Castillo. On the matter of association with organized crime, it was decided that there was no proof of Del Castillo’s involvement with the cartel. “The evidentiary material does not show concrete acts of involvement by the implicated party in accordance with the purposes of the organization headed by El Chapo, and neither does it show evidence that she intended to form part of this criminal organization,” the report read.
The only thing that was confirmed among the evidence gathered was that Del Castillo was interested in making a movie about El Chapo. “This circumstance does not imply the carrying out of unlawful activities, but only reflects that the meeting with the aforementioned person was purely for the purpose of making a movie and the exercise of a profession,” the document concluded.
Having ruled out the crimes of organized crime and money laundering, focus shifted to whether Del Castillo could be charged with endangering public health or concealment, but there was insufficient evidence of either and it was concluded that the meeting with El Chapo was based on the movie project and did not imply that Del Castillo knew where he was hiding or had helped to provide safe haven for him.
Once it had been confirmed no action would be taken against Del Castillo, the actress has sought the protection of the judiciary to gain access to the report. One of the judges who examined her request concluded that the PGR used media leaks as “a way of disproportionately punishing” the actress for her alleged links to El Chapo. Del Castillo also claims that the actions of the PGR placed her in danger and filed a lawsuit for what she described as state harassment as a result of her meeting with the cartel boss.
In 2020, Alan Feuer stated that El Chapo was still trying to sell the movie from his cell in the maximum-security jail in the US, where he is serving his sentence. “I can’t say exactly how I know this,” the journalist said. “But he is absolutely still trying to get the movie made to this day.”