MEXICO CITY — Recently captured drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was unapologetic for running one of the world’s biggest drug trafficking organizations in a Rolling Stone interview with American actor Sean Penn.
Guzman said in the magazine interview published late Saturday that he entered the drug trade at age 15 because there was no other way to survive. “The only way to have money to buy food, to survive, is to grow poppy, marijuana, and at that age, I began to grow it, to cultivate it and to sell it. That is what I can tell you.”
Penn had the first-ever interview with Guzman in early October while the world’s most-wanted drug lord was on the lam after escaping through an elaborate tunnel from Mexico’s maximum security prison in July.
Guzman was recaptured Friday in the city of Los Mochis in his home state of Sinaloa after a shootout that killed five of his associates and wounded one marine.
A Mexican law enforcement official said Saturday that the interview in the remote community of Tamazula in the northern state of Durango helped authorities track the whereabouts of the drug lord, who earns millions shipping tons of cocaine and manufacturing and transporting methamphetamine and heroin to world markets, the largest in the U.S. market. His cartel also is blamed for thousands of killings.
A few days after the interview, members of the Mexican Navy launched an operation to capture him, but Attorney General Arely Gomez said Friday that it was aborted because he was accompanied by two women and a young girl, whom they did not want to harm.
Officials apparently then lost track of him. But he was later traced to a home in Los Mochis that was under surveillance for a month before marines moved in.
Penn’s meeting with Guzman was arranged through Mexican actress Kate del Castillo, known for her television portrayal of a female drug lord. She was first contacted in 2012 by the drug kingpin after sending him a tweet urging him to turn to good works and start “trafficking with love.” He contacted her again after his arrest in February 2014, when “gringos were scrambling to tell his story,” Penn wrote.
“He was interested in seeing the story of his life told on film, but would entrust its telling only to Kate,” he wrote.
Penn described an elaborate travel itinerary of private planes and a seven-hour ride through mountainous jungle in a two-truck convoy. They were never blindfolded along the way. They spent seven hours eating and drinking with the kingpin until he went off with his men at 4 a.m. and Penn and company went to sleep.
Penn asked for a photo shaking Guzman’s hand to prove to his editors that he actually saw him. An M16 was on the couch opposite them, Penn wrote.
Penn said he received credible information that the DEA was on the trail of the actors, as raids intensified after their first meeting. During their initial encounter, he asked Guzman for a formal interview that was supposed to happen a week later. But with the pressure of federal forces, Guzman instead videotaped his response to Penn’s questions and sent it to Del Castillo.
In the video, Guzman said he grew up poor, selling oranges, soft drinks and candy as a child. He took care of his grandmother’s cattle and chopped wood.
He said he is not responsible for the epidemic of illegal drug use in the U.S. and around the world.
“The day I don’t exist, it won’t decrease in any way at all,” he said.
Prosecutors say Guzman is responsible for thousands of killings and for inciting violence in border cities such as Ciudad Juarez across from El Paso, Texas, in his bid to control shipping routes. Wars between Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel and the local Juarez cartel made the city one of the deadliest in the world around 2010.
When asked whether his activities impact Mexico, he responded, “Not at all.”
“Drug trafficking does not depend on just one person. It depends on a lot of people,” Guzman said.
He said he hasn’t used drugs in 20 years and is a person “who’s not looking for problems in any way.”
Penn, reminding him of the gun battle that killed another famous drug lord, Colombia’s Pablo Escobar, asked Guzman how he sees his final days in the drug business.
“I know one day I will die,” Guzman said. “I hope it’s of natural causes.”