There have been a lot of interesting reactions to Sean Penn’s goliath, 10,000-plus word gonzo feature story for Rolling Stone magazine about his secret meeting last year with Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Titled “Chapo Speaks,” Penn’s first-person article describes how Kate Del Castillo, a Mexican actress helping Guzman try to option his life story for a movie, arranged for the actor to meet Chapo in his secret jungle hideout a few months after Guzman famously escaped from a high-security Mexican prison using an underground tunnel. The article was published Jan. 9, just one day after Mexican marines and federal police captured Guzman in the coastal city of Los Mochis, just down the hill from the mountainous, marijuana- and opium-cultivating region known as the “Golden Triangle,” where Penn interviewed the fugitive cartel leader.
Some readers on social media immediately jumped in to make fun of Penn’s clunky writing: (“I like speed. But not without my hands on the wheel.”) and lack of judgment: (Did Penn really feel readers needed to know that he farted in front of Guzman, or that his host politely acted like he didn’t notice?)
Other observers, particularly journalists, criticized Penn for agreeing to send Guzman his entire article prior to publication, an alleged violation of journalistic ethics, although Politico’s media critic Jack Shafer pointed out that since Guzman apparently didn’t request any changes, the point was moot, and that the logistics of interviewing one of the most wanted men in the world (who presumably didn’t want to trade an interview for a trip back to prison) pretty much demanded such a compromise. Penn, for his part, went on 60 Minutes to admit that his article was a “failure,” because it distracted the public from his actual intent, which was to question the war on drugs.
But none of that matters to Don Winslow, author of two epic books on the Mexican drug war (2005’s Power of the Dog and last year’s sequel, The Cartel). In a Jan. 18 story for Deadline, Winslow blasted Penn, essentially calling his magazine article the most pretentious affront to drug war journalism ever committed.
“As someone who has researched and written about the Mexican cartels and the futile ‘war on drugs’ for coming on twenty years, I know how tough a subject it is,” Winslow wrote. “Mind-bending, soul-warping, heartbreaking, it challenges your intellect, your beliefs, your faith in humanity and God. No journalist or writer who has ever tackled it has emerged quite the same – and all too many have not survived at all, but been tortured, mutilated and killed on the orders of such as Joaquin Guzman.” (Winslow dedicated The Cartel to the dozens of journalists who have been murdered in Mexico in recent years, and listed all of them by name).
Noting that Penn only mentions the phrase “war on drugs” three times in the entire 10,500-word story, Winslow criticized Penn for pretending that a serious critique of American drug war policy had anything to do with his reasons for interviewing Guzman, who Winslow says he refuses to call “Chapo,” which is Spanish for “Shorty,” since Guzman “is not one of the Seven Dwarves . . . he’s a mass murderer.”
“An entry-level journalist would have pushed Guzman on the many millions of dollars in bribes he has paid to co-opt police, judges and politicians, about his treaty with the sadistic and hideously violent Zetas when it was convenient to him,” Winslow argues. “I would like to have heard about the people on his payroll who dissolved their victims’ bodies in acid, about the decapitations and mutilations, about the blood soaked bodies displayed in public places as intimidation and propaganda. I would like to have known, for instance, how Guzman feels about the 35 people (including 12 women) he had slaughtered because they were allegedly Zetas (this was when he was at war, not peace, with them) only to discover later that they were innocent.”
I interviewed Winslow about one of his previous novels, The Kings of Cool, which was loosely based on the story of Laguna Beach’s Brotherhood of Eternal Love (Winslow was kind enough to credit my book about the group in his endnotes). One of the things Winslow told me was that his editors in New York were always protesting his depictions of Mexican cartel violence as being too gory or over the top—until he emailed them stories by Mexican journalists demonstrating that if anything Winslow had dialed down the carnage in his novels. In fact, Winslow said, he didn’t even want to write a sequel to Power of the Dog because the violence in Mexico was such a depressing topic, a theme Winslow reiterated when I interviewed him last June, just as The Cartel hit bookstore shelves. “I was very reluctant to write this book,” Winslow told me. “I came into it kicking and screaming. But at the end of the day, I didn’t think I should be sitting on the sidelines as a writer about this. A lot of Americans just don’t know what has happened there and why. I’m not a crusader, I’m not a journalist. I’m a novelist, and I had to write this story.”
Anyone hoping to learn something valuable about America’s war on drugs while also being entertained (and even experiencing the entire range of human emotions) should skip Penn’s Rolling Stone article and dive into the much more compelling tale of Power of the Dog and The Cartel. With any justice, Guzman’s biopic will never get made and Winslow’s work—which Deadline says has already been optioned with Ridley Scott as director—will get the blockbuster film that it deserves.
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).