The recapture of Mexico's most wanted drug lord has given anti-criminal efforts a boost. But the government isn't seeing light at the end of the tunnel just yet
One of the first movies to make Sean Penn famous was The Falcon and the Snowman, in which the American actor plays a former drug dealer convicted of espionage. The 1985 movie, based on an actual criminal case, tells how protagonists Andrew Daulton Lee and Christopher Boyce end up being captured by the Mexican police and deported to America. Penn, a firm believer in rehabilitation, later hired the real-life Lee after he was paroled to make him his personal assistant.
Rehabilitation was never on the agenda of Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, the drug kingpin Penn met last October in the mountainous jungle of Northern Mexico. In an interview with the actor published this week-end in Rolling Stones magazine, the cold-blooded, violence-inclined boss of the notorious Sinaloa cartel boasts of being the world’s top drug dealer. “I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats.”
He’s probably not bragging so much anymore. Having escaped from his cell last summer through a mile-long tunnel that led from his shower, he was recaptured by Mexican marines on Friday. Officials say his whereabouts became clearer after he contacted movie producers to try and sell them the idea of a biopic on his humble self. The plan seemed to take shape after he spoke with Penn and Kate del Castillo, a Mexican actress he is fond of and saw as the only person capable of spearheading the project.
Last week's arrest was not the ending he wanted. Instead the event overjoyed President Enrique Peña Nieto and his government, for whom El Chapo's Hollywood-like escapes had been a terrible humiliation. Last year's was indeed his second break from a high-security jail after his 2001 escape inside a laundry cart. And it had come at a dreadful time for the government, whose ineptitude at locating 43 students that disappeared in the state of Guerrero in September had infuriated Mexicans. Having broken the news of El Chapo’s capture by tweeting “Mission accomplished: we have him”, Peña Nieto is now rightfully gleeful.
But he won't be able to celebrate for long. The security situation in Mexico may not improve much following the arrest of Sinaloa’s top dog: while the cartel’s influence may fade, more dangerous gangs like the Zetas and Jalisco New Generation may seek to fill the void. Their main line of business being kidnapping and extortion, these actually represent a greater local menace than Sinaloa, which in fact is more of an American obsession.
Mexico’s criminal system meanwhile remains highly dysfunctional. Corruption is still rife among the police, military and judiciary, and cartels continue to exert control over most levels of government through graft and infiltrations. Penn’s interview recounts how soldiers let his car through a checkpoint without fuss not despite, but because of who was sitting next to him: Guzmán’s son, whom they'd recognised when initially stopping the convoy. A somewhat troubling example of "the power of the face,” as the actor describes.
An official this weekend suggested Penn and del Castillo were now under investigation. Presumably the police wants to find out more about the location of the interview, as well as if there was any wrongdoing on the part of the actors. There probably wasn’t: from Penn’s point of view, he just had a talk with a fugitive. Neither did del Castillo provide material aid or cover.
But I still see a few reasons to think what they did is wrong. It provided the drug lord with an opportunity to leverage Hollywood’s fame machine, which many reckon is already doing quite enough to glamorise the narco lifestyle. Penn’s one-off freelance job for Rolling Stones indeed resembles more myth-making than journalism, and pays little tribute to the dozens of Mexican reporters that have died covering the drug trade. Guzman was even given the chance to read and approve the article before publication.
The interview’s theatrics – and the narco-culture in general, whether it be manufactured in Hollywood or home-grown – also obscure recent progress in a country that's working hard to remould its image. Structural reforms enacted by a more responsive government are starting to bear fruit: greater competition in telecoms is resulting in lower bills for ordinary Mexicans, with the education and energy markets next on the list. Some former criminal hotspots are no longer what they used to be, as inhabitants of Ciudad Juarez, on the US-Mexico border, were keen to scream to the world after their town was depicted as inferno in the movie Sicario. And the country is a growing cultural and tourism centre.
In Spanish El Chapo means ‘shorty’. That’s now an apt word to qualify the odds that Guzman will spend the rest of his life behind bars, most likely American ones (a process to extradite him is in progress). Which is a good thing. But the quicker everyone forgets the theatrics and focuses on Mexico's real problems, the better off the country will be. And if we really need to make a biopic let’s do it on David Bowie.