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Why Sean Penn’s El Chapo Interview Is His Best Work in Years

Why Sean Penn's El Chapo Interview Is His Best Work in Years

When
the news came in that Sean Penn had tracked down escaped Mexican drug
cartel lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera for an explosive Rolling Stone
article
, I was the middle of explaining the relative safety of Colombia
to a nonbeliever. By the time I finished high school, I had visited
Bogotá nearly a dozen times, usually to visit my grandparents, who
resettled there after fleeing Europe during the second World War. Every
time I came back, the conversations followed the same routine. “Did you see any drugs?” (No.) “Did you feel safe?” (Well, yeah, of course.) These
trips took place in the years following the death of Pablo Escobar in
1993, as the country best known up north for its cocaine industry
attempted to figure out its next chapter. Now, presumably, it’s Mexico’s
turn. 

The systematic domination of the cartels hardly rests on
the operations of a single individual. Some of the fleeting remarks that
Guzmán makes to Penn are chilling, particularly his assessment that the
drug industry won’t go away anytime soon. “The day I don’t exist, it’s
not going to decrease in any way at all,” he says. Penn backs up that
conclusion in the bracing essay surrounding his Q&A, describing his
subject in colorful terms that position him in the context of the
economic forces enabling his business: “His presence conjures questions
of cultural complexity and context, of survivalists and capitalists,
farmers and technocrats, clever entrepreneurs of every ilk, some say
silver, and others lead.”

With Guzmán behind bars, that
assessment presents a unique publicity challenge to the Mexican
government: If the industry can’t be decimated, at the very least its
image could be marginalized. Colombia may still suffer the wounds of
Escobar’s legacy, but its developing tourism economy points to a
brighter future, in which the country’s more profound history and layers
of identity stretching back thousands of years hold more appeal than a
single illicit trade. 

By humanizing El Chapo, reducing a
mythological super-villain to the level of a savvy businessman, Penn
delivers his most perceptive storytelling achievement since “Into the
Wild” — another project that peered beyond the mystique of an elusive
character to find the flawed, driven personality beneath. 

And if
this is the menace that Mexico has branded as enemy number one, all the
threatening characters like him deserve the same scrutiny. Relegated to
the roles of avaricious executives, cartel leaders look more like
Bernie Madoff with guns than objects of supreme terror. If Mexico can
take a page from Penn’s angle and rewire the cartel’s image, it could
finally hit on a formula to combat its most crippling enemy —
xenophobia. Position the cartel world as a blot on a nation rich with
more triumphant cultural milestones and it starts to look more like a
nuisance. A horrible, terrifying nuisance, but not the whole story. 

Sympathetic
to this marketing challenge, I found the depiction of Mexico’s ominous
underworld in last year’s “Sicario” — told entirely from the perspective
of Emily Blunt’s baffled FBI agent — dispiritingly facile in its
depiction of Mexican identity. While expertly crafted to ratchet up the
tension in numerous showdowns, and brilliantly shot by Roger Deakins,
the movie creates the impression that every non-American character
harbors a nefarious agenda; it even manages to squeeze in rudimentary
assumptions about Medellín’s criminal past in the process. The movie
preys on its audience’s nightmarish assumptions.

A far more
sobering look at the drug war can be found in the opening moments of
Matthew Heineman’s documentary “Cartel Land,” which opens with a meth
cook discussing his commitment to the task at hand in credible terms. He
doesn’t sound like a bad guy; he sounds like somebody trying to survive
at all costs. The “Sicario” narrative implies that the entire country
embraces its criminal dysfunction; “Cartel Land” suggests that the drug
trade evolved organically like an industrial virus, but even the
infected would prefer a cure. With El Chapo behind bars, there may be
hope yet.

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