The capture of Joaquin Archivaldo Guzman Loera, aka “El Chapo” or “Shorty”
The world was shocked on January 8, 2016 when a humiliated Mexican government announced it had re-captured Mexican drug kingpin El Chapo, six months after his second escape from a high-security Mexican prison. His capture occurred during a violent three-hour battle near the seaside city of Los Mochis in his home state of Sinaloa. According to one witness who asked to remain anonymous:
“’You could hear intense gunfire and a helicopter; it was fierce.”
Five suspects were killed and six others arrested during the siege, yet another shocking revelation was in store. The day after the capture, Rolling Stone magazine published a related article – an exclusive clandestine interview with El Chapo conducted by popular American actor, Sean Penn. The article’s publication was followed quickly by a Mexican official speaking on condition of anonymity, admitting that the Sean Penn interview for Rolling Stone magazine led to El Chapo’s arrest. He told reporters:
“An important aspect that allowed us to locate him was that we discovered Guzman’s intention to make a biographical film, for which he established contact with actresses and producers.”
Although El Chapo’s capture was played off as good old-fashioned police work, the question on everyone’s mind is whether or not the operation was a covert CIA/NSA/DEA operation – and how involved was Sean Penn with its planning and execution.
The Rolling Stone interview – Actor Sean Penn granted exclusive interview of El Chapo
If the capture of El Chapo didn’t shock the world, the revelation that actor Sean Penn had spoken with, and interviewed the drug kingpin surely caused a few sideways glances. According to Penn, this was the first-ever outside contact with El Chapo after his “extraordinary escape from Altiplano maximum-security prison through an impeccably engineered mile-long tunnel”. Penn gloated with mild trepidation:
“This will be the first interview El Chapo had ever granted outside an interrogation room, leaving me no precedent by which to measure the hazards.”
The meeting between Penn and El Chapo, which took place in Tamazula (a community in Durango state that neighbors Sinaloa), was brokered shortly after his second prison escape by Kate del Castillo, a popular Mexican actress with prior ties to El Chapo. It was known that El Chapo trusted Castillo after she made public comments seeming to support him (she stated on Twitter that “in a question of trust between governments and cartels, hers would go to El Chapo.”)
The meeting between Sean Penn and El Chapo reportedly took place in October 2015 in a jungle clearing amongst a collection of bungalows, armed guards, and several bottles of tequila. El Chapo spoke with Penn for seven hours impressing Penn enough that he mentioned the dangerous kingpin’s “indisputable charisma” in the article.
To allay any doubters, Penn took great care to “prove” the meeting took place using uniquely identifiable comments from El Chapo and a photograph of the actor and drug boss shaking hands. During the interview, the two men drank and chuckled thinking about “how funny it would be if there were a weaponized drone above us.”
Did Sean Penn’s Rolling Stone interview lead to the capture of El Chapo?
Despite gracing the world’s Most Wanted lists, it was common knowledge that the lure of Hollywood exuded a strong attraction on El Chapo. According to reports, Guzman wanted to have a biographical movie made about his life. He had already contacted actors and producers about a potential project. It was his ties with film industry icons that eventually lead to his contact with Sean Penn himself.
After El Chapo first escaped the Puente Grande prison in 2001 (reportedly under cover of a laundry cart), he managed to outmaneuver the authorities to remain at the top of his organization for over a decade. Yet, after his second escape, he only managed to evade authorities for mere months. Prior to his recent capture, Guzman had proven he was expert at avoiding capture while on the lam. Other than his interview with Sean Penn, what changed?
Was Sean Penn a willing participant in a covert operation against El Chapo?
In the Rolling Stone article, Penn points out his belief that the war on drugs has failed and admits that he takes “no pride in keeping secrets that may be perceived as protecting criminals.” But was Penn an active, willing participant in Guzman’s capture?
Penn’s bold worldwide travels (e.g. Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Haiti) and irreverent associations with less-than-reputable leaders (e.g. Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, Cuban president Raul Castro) almost certainly ensured his place on government watchlists. In fact, speculating that Kate Castillo herself was likely being monitored by authorities, Penn admits that he presumes he is being monitored for suspicious activity during his travels to El Chapo’s secret lair.
“I had been bewildered by his willingness to risk our visit. If Kate was being surveilled, so must those named on any shared flight manifest. I see no spying eyes, but I assume they are there.”
Regardless, Penn’s prior contacts and worldwide travels soothed Guzman’s concerns over the interview. In retrospect, Penn’s prior activities should have alarmed him.
At this point in time, our only clue that Penn could have participated in a covert operation to recapture El Chapo, is the carefully worded Rolling Stone article. However, a thoughtful read between the lines reveals many potential clues hinting at Penn’s involvement.
Every covert operation is going to require a massive distortion of facts and propaganda leaked to the public. Immediately following El Chapo’s arrest, Mexico publicly announced that they wanted to question Penn and actress Kate del Castillo about the location of the meeting. Was this merely disinformation intended to disassociate the participants from the capture and avoid any culpability?
Unanswered questions steer readers away from Penn involvement
Other questions similarly remain. Did the meeting really take place in October? Who else was present at the meeting? How much time really elapsed during their trek through remote Mexican jungles to the rendezvous point? Was the photograph of Penn and El Chapo, included in the Rolling Stone article, taken on a trusted device? Regardless of the true answers to these questions, it is certainly no coincidence that the Rolling Stone article was released the day after El Chapo’s capture. There are secrets here – somewhere.
Penn’s unusual statements concerning surveillance
Penn wrote that it occurred to him that he might be under the surveillance of Mexican authorities or the US Drug Enforcement Agency.
“There is no question in my mind but that the DEA and the Mexican government are tracking our movements.”
This suspicion (or admission?) seems questionable and potentially dangerous. Was the statement nothing more than a legal maneuver? Any information introduced to the public record produces legal ramifications (beneficial or otherwise) in a court of law and all legal ramifications aside, Penn’s statement certainly bends public opinion, potentially distracting the reader and directing suspicions away from the authors.
Penn takes care to note information that could be used to track down Guzman
Several times in the article, Penn mentions mental notes taken during the trek to El Chapo’s hidden location. He notes the specific elapsed time between geographic points and describes easily-identifiable topographic details such as a dirt airfield, township signs, mountain peaks, and “weathered bungalows on a knoll”. We may assume it only natural to remember granular details when adrenalin is flowing through your veins but could there be another reason for Penn’s uncanny recall of the events?
Could the reporters smuggle an electronic tracking device to the meeting with El Chapo?
From the article, we know that Penn carried a satchel and that another participant wore an unusual surgical corset (required after a recent back surgery) either of which could easily house a hidden tracking device. Yet there is no mention of El Chapo’s team searching the visitors for potential hidden electronic devices.
Unusual (and gutsy) questions during the El Chapo interview
The article notes several unusual (and gutsy) attempts to gain incriminating answers or answers to questions that could be used by authorities to pinpoint Guzman’s location. For instance, Penn asks El Chapo about a rumored bounty he had placed on Donald Trump’s life (Guzman denied the rumor). In another instance, Penn asks Guzman if he visits his mother much (admittedly, a location you would think Mexican police already monitor). Questions such as these provide additional incriminating evidence tying Guzman to the United States (think “extradition”) as well as soliciting information about El Chapo’s movements.
Penn’s insistence that a follow-up interview be done
Penn asks El Chapo for a longer interview and even offers to stay with Guzman “to record our conversations” while his colleagues return home. Could the proposed follow-up interview be a facade, a failsafe proposal in case the authorities first attempt at tracking down El Chapo using Penn’s assistance failed?
Certainly Penn’s continued and prolonged presence with El Chapo could assist authorities in tracking his location and movements. What we know for certain is that although El Chapo originally agreed to a second interview, for some unknown reason, El Chapo and his crews reneged on the agreement and suddenly “went dark”.
The military move to capture El Chapo within hours after the interview – coincidence?
Reports are conflicting but it is believed that the initial surge to El Chapo occurred within hours of the interview’s conclusion. According to Mexican police, the tip that led them to Guzman was proffered as “a leaky cellphone among his crew”.
These reports of the raid gained substance when El Chapo confirmed the attack in a Blackberry message to Kate.
“There was an operation… Two helicopters and six BlackHawks began a confrontation upon their arrival. The marines dispersed throughout the farms.”
Even according to Rolling Stone magazine, in the weeks following the interview, there were “massive sweeps by military and law enforcement [that] lead to hundreds of arrests, seizures, and several extraditions of cartel personnel to the United States.”
It seems near certain that immediately following the Rolling Stone interview, authorities suddenly and unexpectedly came closer to El Chapo’s secret location.
Penn’s closing statements predict El Chapo’s capture
Ironically, in Sean Penn’s closing remarks, he foresees with seer-like accuracy, the impending capture and extradition of El Chapo:
“It won’t be long, I’m sure, before the Sinaloa cartel’s next shipment into the United States is the man himself.”
Could Penn have accidentally revealed El Chapo’s location?
It is quite possible that Penn had no purposeful involvement with El Chapo’s capture. Still, despite reported attempts to conceal their movements while travelling to El Chapo’s secret location, there were likely a multitude of available means to track the reporters movements without their knowledge. In fact, in the days following El Chapo’s capture, Mexican officials released surveillance photographs of the group at the airport, leaving in a private plane, and on the ground lending credence to the theory that officials were tracking the group as they made their way to the elusive El Chapo.
Use of Drones or other airborne devices
Even Sean Penn himself noted his fear that they were being monitored by government-controlled drones flying high overhead and out of sight. The public now accepts that drones fly around us daily, quietly, just outside our range of vision, and capable of recording everything they see with stunning clarity. The concern over drones tends to make us forget the obvious – satellite imagery capable of recording footage of activities taking place over large swaths of land.
How communications equipment could lead authorities to El Chapo
In the article, Penn mentions the use of communications via BBM messages (Blackberry Messenger) and anonymous email addresses. Let’s face it, any sort of messaging app can be tracked – be it Telegram, Blackberry Messenger, or anonymous Tor communications – it’s the nature of communication networks that ultimately the route communication traffic takes (and likely the identity of the user) can be determined by those with the appropriate equipment. And given recent revelations regarding the NSA’s collection and use of electronic data, it’s near certain that even encrypted messages can be deciphered by the U.S. government.
Did a technological misstep lead to El Chapo’s capture?
In the article, Penn admits that “at 55 years old, I’ve never learned to use a laptop. Do they still make laptops?” It’s not difficult to surmise that mistakes were made by Penn or other journalists involved with the story. Even El Chapo or his crew could have erred. For instance, Penn mentions that the photograph of him shaking hands with Guzman was taken using the cellphone of El Chapo’s son. Cellphone photos contain metadata including camera and device identification and of course, the time and location the photo was taken. Was this photo scrubbed before being sent to Penn (as would be expected from any well-respected journalists publication, the photo published in the Rolling Stone article had indeed been stripped of all metadata).
Tracking the reporters burner phones
Penn explains that burner phones (TracPhones) were used for communications while travelling to El Chapo’s secret location. Cheap “burner” phones, popularized on HBO’s The Wire, are temporary phones used for a short time and then thrown away. The Edward Snowden leaks revealed to the world that the NSA has the ability to monitor all electronic communications. In the past three years, we’ve learned that the NSA collects information on burner phones too. The metadata collected by the NSA can be used to not only identify, but to locate persons in the United States and abroad. Almost daily we learn new and unexpected ways the NSA uses the metadata fished from the communication devices of unsuspecting users.
How the NSA tracks burner phones
From burner phones’ metadata, authorities collect information such as when a phone went online, when it stopped being used, the total number of calls, the location the burner was used at, and the ratio of unique contacts to calls. Statistical analysis is then applied to this information to “guess” at a person’s identity using a pattern matching algorithm known as a “fingerprint”.
For instance, if a phone calls goes from a burner phone to Mr. X and seconds later another call goes to Mr. X’s son, it’s a good bet that the burner phone is in the hands of a family member (likely the mother). This burner can then be tagged with a weighted identifier noting the potential owner of the burner phone. Subsequent calls add and subtract from this weighted identifier, confirming or altering the software’s estimate of who is handling the phone. The more calls made from a burner phone, the more accurate the system’s “guess” of the identity of the person using the phone.
Tracking burner phones that are only used one time
Statistical analysis can be used in almost magical ways to identify the user of a burner phone even if the phone is used once and discarded. Penn notes that he changed phones often and that he even left his personal cellphones at home. Still, the article describes how personal cellphones of other team members were carried all the way to the rendezvous point with El Chapo’s crew and thus, provided authorities a direct link from Penn and the crew to El Chapo’s organization.
Even rapid fire disposal of burner phones cannot guard against the NSA’s powerful computers. For example, suppose Mr. X received a call from a burner phone located on the 200 block of Pennsylvania Street. Then moments later, another call from the same location is made from a different burner phone to Mr. X’s son. It’s easy to presume the user of both phones is the same – a family member. The fingerprint gains more credence if it is recognized that the first phone has “gone dead” just as the next phone goes online. All of this analysis involves millions of possible scenarios which can be crunched and analyzed by powerful government software in the blink of an eye.
In the weeks following El Chapo’s capture, Sean Penn was interviewed for CBS Television by Charlie Rose. In the interview, Penn suggested that the Mexican government was “clearly very humiliated by the notion that someone found him before they did” and as a result, released information pointing to Penn as the reason El Chapo was caught. Rose then asked Penn:
“Do you believe that the Mexican government released this in part because they wanted to see you blamed and to put you at risk?”
“Yes,” Penn replied.
“They wanted to encourage the cartel to put you in their crosshairs?” Rose continued.
“Yes,” Penn replied again.
Whether or not the capture of El Chapo was due to human mistake or a covert operation may never be known to anyone but those who participated in the operation. The truth may never be revealed, even in court. If Sean Penn was involved, given the Sinaloa Cartel’s propensity for violence and revenge, it would of course be in his best interest if the world never found out.