So what can be made of the encounter, as reported by Penn in his Rolling Stone article? While many, including journalists, have rushed to find fault with Penn’s journalism, not least for ceding editorial control over the questions to, and answers by, the subject (Guzman), other commentators have framed the event’s significance in terms of Penn’s ego and his quest for film rights over Guzman’s story. It seems certain that Guzman was induced to meet with Penn in his remote Mexican hideaway partly because of Penn’s celebrity status. It is also the case that Penn relied upon a well-known Mexican actor, Kate de Castillo, to broker the meeting between the two high-rollers. Without Penn’s celebrity and Guzman’s known fondness for the popular female actor, such an improbable encounter would have been impossible.
As some commentators have observed, we learn a lot more about Penn than we do about Guzman or the Sinaloa drug cartel from reading this article. Most of the 10,000 word piece deals with Penn’s journey to meet with Guzman and the meeting itself. The purpose of the meeting was in fact to set up a second face to face interview with Guzman. This subsequent interview never occurred, as Penn decided it was too risky to go again. Instead he managed to submit a series of questions by Blackberry to Guzman and to secure videoed answers to those questions from him. By choosing this approach, Penn was obliged to put his questions in advance and was hence unable to probe or test the answers provided by Guzman. Many of Guzman’s answers, which appear in Q and A format towards the end of the article, are indeed trite and not very revealing. The limits of Penn’s approach were further compounded by the fact that Penn could only speak English, and relied upon Spanish-speaking interpreters to communicate with Guzman who only spoke Spanish in person and on video tape.
As a criminologist interested in transnational crime and particularly the operations of Latin American drug trafficking organizations, my reaction to the article is a mixture of admiration and frustration. First of all, Penn has managed to do what few other investigators of organised crime have done, namely secure direct access to and talk with one of the world’s most notorious crime bosses. Guzman has presided over one of Mexico’s, and the region’s, most powerful and successful drug trafficking organizations of the past fifteen years. Comparisons with Pablo Escobar are indeed appropriate. Escobar, the former chief of the Colombian Medellin cartel who was ultimately caught and shot by police in Medellin in 1993, is currently the subject of a very popular Netflix series, Narcos. Both figures played significant roles in the everyday lives of many of their fellow countrymen, at times for better as well as, more notoriously, for worse. The series’ success, as well as public reaction to Penn’s article, underlines the enormous general interest in these issues.
Penn can rightly be criticised for taking at face value claims made by (and about) Guzman in the article that he has been principally a businessman, and that he mainly resorted to violence when his hand was forced. Here Penn’s limitations as a journalist let alone as a criminologist are on full view. The enormous carnage initiated and committed by the Sinaloa organization in its struggles with the Juarez and Los Zetas groups as well as law enforcement in Mexico is too well-documented for Penn or anyone else to dismiss as self-defence or a mere cost of doing business. Of course, it is also true that Penn was taking enormous risks for going where he did (indeed he may still be at risk now, particularly as Mexican authorities are linking Guzman’s recapture to the intrepid celebrity’s pursuit of the interview). Here, while I take issue with Penn’s limitations as a researcher, I take off my hat to his chutzpah and courage in achieving what he has done. Many of the best insights into the activities of criminals or terrorists have not come from academic researchers but rather from brave journalists. The latter’s pursuit of the novel and newsworthy, unencumbered by obligations to risk averse university research ethics committees, has produced some unique and valuable insights into the workings of these law breakers.
While Penn missed or dodged putting some potentially useful questions to his subject, he nonetheless has been able to make some insightful observations about corruption of the Mexican military, about the durability of the drug trade with or without the capture of cartel leaders such as Guzman, the trade’s heavy reliance upon US public demand for illicit drugs, and the complicity of ostensibly lawful business organizations in the laundering of drug profits. While none of these points is particularly original, the attention the article has drawn means that a very large audience will be reminded of some of the complexities involved in understanding and responding constructively to the indisputable harms associated with illicit drug trafficking and consumption.
Finally, Penn’s piece is no endorsement or celebration of organized crime. Such endorsements are more readily found in some organised crime dramas on Australian television or indeed in some of the humour in the popular media relating to illicit drug use and the exploits of notorious criminal figures. While Penn leaves many questions about Guzman unanswered, he does reveal Guzman as an unglamourous, even uncomplicated, individual in his personal tastes and attitudes. This discovery of course begs the further question of how such seemingly ‘ordinary’ criminals nevertheless manage to achieve extraordinary success in their illegal ventures. Penn could be said therefore to have obliquely posed some unique challenges for bold organized crime researchers to take up in the future.
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