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Beyond Sean Penn’s Fiasco: Mexico’s Alleged War on Drugs is Not a Movie



There is a reason why most popular gangster movies tell stories of legendary godfathers in the old times, convicted felons serving their sentences in prison, or fictionalized characters. Sean Penn missed that part when publishing his interview with the notorious Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera.

Penn and Mexican soap-opera star Kate del Castillo didn’t figure it out, but the organized crime in Mexico is not a movie. You don’t interview a fugitive serial killer right when he is planning his next kidnapping and slaughtering, before he goes to jail, without becoming his accomplice . . . unless you are as untouchable as a Hollywood star.

More than 50,000 people have been murdered during the current administration (plus countless non-reported by states completely controlled from the top by the cartels, like Veracruz, Tamaulipas, Sinaloa or Chihuahua), and more than 120,000 people were killed during the so-called “war on drugs” ordered by former President Felipe Calderon. These people are not extras in a Scorcese’s film.

On November 23, 2011, twelve partially calcined people were found in the trunk of a burning van in the Rosales Neighborhood of Culiacán City, the capital of Sinaloa State. That same day, another burning van in Desarrollo Urbano Tres Ríos was found with four bodies, with the head of one of them thrown to the sidewalk. On that day, “El Chapo” freely conducted his business throughout the country and the entire world. It was a business as usual day for the Sinaloa Cartel. It looked like any other day on another year, like May 2nd, 2012, when twenty-two people were found murdered within less than twelve hours, or June 21st, 2013, when two teenagers were killed, allegedly, because they made fun of the son of a gangster at school.

That’s life and death in a period of time that Sean Penn qualifies as “strictly business”: “’El Chapo’ is a businessman first, and only resorts to violence when he deems it advantageous to himself or his business interests,” he says.

The drug lord said so, and he believed it. Sean Penn is “disappointed” of current journalists, but didn’t care to apply their basic rule of fact checking. Had he done so, he would have probably learned that while “El Chapo” was operating freely as a “business man” between 2009 and 2012 there were 330 femicides in Sinaloa, 80% of which remain unsolved. While certainly all these women were not killed personally by “El Chapo” with his bare hands, the rate of femicides in any state where there is organized crime is higher than it is elsewhere.

Drug trafficking is not just about cartels fighting against each other for a better and larger turf. Drug trafficking is an anti-democratic culture of death, extortion, sexism, prostitution, nepotism, tyranny and humiliation permeating the social, political and private life at all levels, everywhere it goes. The obvious territory is that of the military forces, police corps and bribed politicians. Little we know or care about the organized crime inside education, universities and scientific research, for instance, even though the University of Sinaloa often obtains more false credentials, for obvious reasons, and therefore receives more government funding than others where corruption is not the law.

Just because the Mexican Government has become the organized crime at a local, state and federal levels, it doesn’t mean apolitical drug lords should take over the entire country as an alternative to the corruption. Ms. Kate del Castillo doesn’t see it that way though. She referred to the drug lord as a savior, saying that she trusts “more” in him than corrupt politicians. Then she added the advice to start “trafficking with love,” which apparently the drug lord understood as a greenlight to contact her. Two years after her famous Tweeter request, it turned out she was trying to make a Narcos-style Hollywood movie about the drug lord, as confirmed by her own friend, human rights advocate and journalist Lydia Cacho.

Mrs. Lydia Cacho, who has been herself persecuted by corrupt politicians involved in the organized crime, confesses, “Kate told me she was making a movie about ‘El Chapo’.” It is unclear whether Mrs. Lydia Cacho knew about the actor’s alleged money laundering business with the criminal (which is now under investigation), but she is now in contact with Del Castillo and became her spokeswoman. In a recent interview with Univisión’s anchor Jorge Ramos (the Mexican equivalent of Charlie Rose), Lydia Cacho blames the Mexican Secretary of State and Sean Penn for betraying Del Castillo’s “true” and pure intentions, which were no less than the making of a gangster’s movie.

I spoke to one close friend of Mrs. Lydia Cacho, author of “The Eden’s Demons” about pederasty and organized crime in Puebla State. I asked her why this human rights advocate and activist would be willing to risk her longtime earned credibility by unapologetically portraying the soap-opera’s star as a victim. The answer I received is typical of the drug-trafficking world culture, “Because, they are friends, and she was probably going to participate in the movie as an ‘advisor’ or screenwriter.”

Same thing happens to Oscar-winning Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who was Sean Penn’s protégé when he started working in Hollywood. They are friends. So González Iñárritu supports Penn’s side. He quotes a famous Mexican journalist, Julio Scherer García, who once said he would “go to hell” in order to obtain the opportunity to interview someone, and actually interviewed another drug lord from Sinaloa.

However, Scherer was a journalist. He used to provide a context to the conversation, and never perceived drug lords as his “saviors” like Del Castillo does, or “simple business men.” He was the Founder. Editor of “Proceso,” the prestigious investigative magazine in Mexico. Two of his reporters, longtime journalist Regina Martínez and talented photo-reporter Rubén Espinosa, were murdered by the Veracruz government involved with another powerful Cartel, the “Zetas.”

The state of Veracruz is one of the 10 most dangerous places in the world for journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders. Quoting the director of a publication that has lost two of its best reporters precisely because they denounced the organized crime is a disservice to journalism.

This is not the first time that González Iñárritu quotes without reading someone though. When he first won a Spirit Award for his movie “21 Grams,” took the stage along with actor Sean Penn, and he spoke in favor of peace, only quoting Peruvian novelist and Nobel Price Mario Vargas Llosa. He simply didn’t know that Vargas Llosa had just been in Irak as an “embedded” reporter for the Spanish newspaper “El País,” supporting Spanish pro-Bush President Aznar portraying the US Marines as the most polite, nicest soldiers — until the Abu Ghraib prisoners’ torture and abuse scandal took place and Vargas Llosa got silent.

As Counterpunch’s article “Hollywood and the CIA” by Ed Rampell notes, cinema can be a very powerful propaganda tool. However, in this case, there is no mastermind twisting the information to support drug cartels, but just plain ignorance – Hollywood and Mexican soap-operas’ greed finally meeting.

In the meantime, real journalists in Mexico continue risking and losing their lives, literally.

The flirtatious text messages Kate del Castillo exchanged with the drug lord arranging a secret meeting and inviting Sean Penn were immediately released by the Mexican Government. However, in the case of the 43 Ayotzinapa kidnapped and disappeared students, their parents have been demanding for more than one year the disclosure of the Mexican Army and the Iguala City Police’s phone exchanges and text messages. There are still no answers for them. They are not so glamorous.

In New York City, Mr. Antonio Tizapa, father of one of the Ayotzinapa students, demands the immediate disclosure and release of any information regarding those phone calls and text messages. “Each one of these students have a cell phone, and the soldiers had cell phones. How come none of their text messages and calls are public?” he asked on a public statement during a rally in front of the Mexican Consulate, on January 26. Some of this information would probably explain what really happened in the Ayotzinapa’s case.

Malú Huacuja del Toro is a feminist Mexican novelist, playwright and screenwriter with eight fiction published books in Spanish. She wrote the first “anti-soap opera” in Mexico, produced in 1988. She is also an activist for Ayotzinapa and the Zapatista movement. She lives in New York. Her play “Gigantic Details – The Unauthorized Adventure of Mrs. Quixota” was selected by the Venus and Adonis Theater Festival. She can be reached at:

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