El Chapo, Sean Penn and the Failed War on Drugs

Quenby Wilcox Having It All


The recent Rolling Stones article El Chapo Speaks, and video interview with the Mexican drug lord, El Chapo (Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera), with Sean Penn has caused much commotion in the press and on the Internet. Unfortunately, the buzz which Mr. Penn's article produced was the response that the author had hope for―as indicated in his 60 Minutes interview, when he states that his article had "failed."

However, in examining any kind of failure here, it should be noted that what "failed" was not Mr. Penn's article, or even his interview with El Chapo. What "failed," was the press's inability to seize the opportunity afforded by Mr. Penn's article to open a much needed discussion on the failed American War on Drugs—as Mr. Penn has repeatedly stated.

While I believe the reaction of the press to Mr. Penn's article—character assassinations, rather than exposure of the hypocrisy and fiasco that has been the War on Drug—is a sad testament to the lack of integrity and freedom of the press in the USA. While I find the accusations launched at Mr. Penn unimportant in the discussion and dialogue that is needed surrounding the War on Drugs, I recognize these accusations have "high-jacked" the issues Mr. Penn wished to raise—and unfortunately, should be addressed before addressing the real issues at hand.

First, the accusation from Don Winslow (who does not possess a degree in journalism himself) that Mr. Penn is not a journalist and/or that his self-proclaimed 'experiential' journalism is not true journalism, is completely baseless. Mr. Winslow's accusation shows a lack of proper research and knowledge regarding his subject matter. There are many well-known and reputable journalist, anchors, and other news people who do not have degrees in journalism—Oprah Winfrey[1], Larry King, Ellen DeGeneres, Jimmy Kimmel, Joy Behar, Rosie O'Donnell, Brian Williams, Peter Jennings, Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor, Nina Totenberg Carl Bernstein, William Safire, Fareed Zakaria, Glenn Greenwald... the list goes on. Even Edward R. Murrow did not possess a degree in journalism. So it does not appear that a degree in journalism is a requirement to practice journalism. And, therefore the argumentation that "Penn is not a journalist because he does not possess a degree in journalism" (particularly in light of his extremely impressive "resume" in the film industry [2]), would be comical if not for the very serious subject matter that Mr. Penn is attempting to expose, the failed War on Drugs.

Then, the accusation that Mr. Penn is not a real journalist because he is a self-proclaimed 'experiential' journalist, is ridiculous. While Mr. Winslow (and others) may not appreciate Mr. Penn's style of reporting, Mr. Penn's style is perfectly "legitimate," and one used by journalists around the world. As Robert Boyton, of the New New Journalism states,

In the thirty years since Tom Wolfe[[3]] published his manifesto [1973], "The New Journalism," a group of writers has been quietly securing a place at the very center of contemporary American literature for reportorially based, narrative-driven long form nonfiction. These New New Journalists–Adrian LeBlanc, Michael Lewis, Lawrence Weschler, Eric Schlosser, Richard Preston, Alex Kotlowitz, Jon Krakauer, William Langewiesche, Lawrence Wright, William Finnegan, Ted Conover, Jonathan Harr, Susan Orlean, and others–represent the continued maturation of American literary journalism. They use the license to experiment with form earned by the New Journalists of the sixties to address the social and political concerns of 19th century writers such as Lincoln Steffens, Jacob Riis and Stephen Crane (an earlier generation of "New Journalists"), synthesizing the best of these two traditions. Rigorously reported, psychologically astute, sociologically sophisticated and politically aware, the New New Journalism may well be the most popular and influential development in the history of American literary nonfiction. The New New Journalism explores the methods and techniques these journalists have developed, and looks backward to understand their dual heritage -- their debts to their predecessors from both the 1890s and the1960s....


What this new breed represents is less a school of thought, or rule-defined movement, than a shorthand way of describing the reportorial sensibility behind an increasingly significant body of work... Robert S. Boynton (New new Journalism )

While Mr. Penn did not perhaps provide the blood and gore that Mr. Winslow would have liked, as reflected in his statement,

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..., [4]

Mr. Penn did highlight some of the important issue to examine in understanding the War on Drugs, and I quote,

In 1989, El Chapo dug the first subterranean passage beneath the border from Tijuana to San Diego, and pioneered the use of tunnels to transport his products and to evade capture. I will discover that his already accomplished engineers had been flown to Germany last year for three months of extensive additional training necessary to deal with the low-lying water table beneath the prison. A tunnel equipped with a pipe-track-guided motorcycle with an engine modified to function in the minimally oxygenized space, allowing El Chapo to drop through a hole in his cell's shower floor, into its saddle and ride to freedom. It was this president of Mexico who had agreed to see us...


The trust that El Chapo had extended to us was not to be fucked with. 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. I'd seen plenty of video and graphic photography of those beheaded, exploded, dismembered or bullet-riddled innocents, activists, courageous journalists and cartel enemies alike. I was highly aware of committed DEA and other law-enforcement officers and soldiers, both Mexican and American, who had lost their lives executing the policies of the War on Drugs. The families decimated, and institutions corrupted.

Obviously, the point Mr. Penn wishes to make is that just like the rest of the world, organized crime is a global business, with those at its helm quite inventive and resourceful—so much so that it is they who are truly ruling the country. Additionally, for all of the criticism that Mr. Penn has received for not asking the blood and gore questions, I really do not know what he would have accomplished in doing so. How concretely would this have shed more light on the complex dynamics that must be examined to understand why the War on Drugs has failed. Additionally, the questions Mr. Winslow suggests Mr. Penn should have asked, would have certainly antagonized El Chapo and his cartel. And, as Mr. Penn so succinctly states, drug cartels and drug lords are not to be "f..... with." After almost seven years of living in Colombia, I can assure everyone, Mr. Penn's advice is very, very, sound advice—drug lords and cartels are not to be f.... with!.

As to the accusation that Mr. Penn and Ms. del Castillo were responsible for the capture of El Chapo. This is el colmo in hypocrisy!

In one breath Mr. Penn is being criticized for meeting with a drug lord, and not using his meeting to set up a sting operation. Really, what "unarmed, untrained" person in his right mind would do that? Mr. Penn may have ample experience in on-screen dealing with criminals, thugs, and drug lords, but his ability to distinguish reality from fiction is very much intact—much more so than the ability of many who are criticizing him at present.

Then, to add insult to injury, Penn's critiques turn around and condemn him for facilitating the capture of El Chapo several months after the interview. Obviously those launching the accusations against Penn are not very familiar with the ins-and-outs of the rapidity, and stealth, that drug lords can disappear without a trace, within hours—not months of being detected by the DEA, etc. Any journalist launching this accusation against Mr. Penn really needs to familiarize themselves with the basic ABC of drug-trafficking and evasive tactics of drug lords.

On a final note, it is worth remarking how once again mainstream media has taken what is one of the most important issues of our time, the failed War on Drugs, mocked and ridiculed it in the same manner that they have mocked and ridiculed all of the important political issues—thereby deviating public opinion away from the real issues that the country and world face. Glenn Greenwald explains the situation in Great American Hypocrites,

Our Beltway media elite believe that their petty, above-it-all, junior-high coolness is a sign of their sophistication and insight. Conversely, they think that political passion and conviction is the province of the lowly, ignorant masses, the overly serious nerds. Moreover, mere citizens have no role to play in our political system other than to keep quiet and allow the Serious Beltway Officials and Experts—the ones who whisper gossip into [Shailagh] Murray's hungry ear and flatter her with access and attention—to make the right, Serious decisions.

Award-winning journalist, Susan Faludi, also provides further insight into the press's ability to manipulate, rather than inform populations, in Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women,

The press first introduced the backlash to a national audience—and made it palatable. Journalism replaced the "pro-family" diatribes of fundamentalist preachers with sympathetic and even progressive-sounding rhetoric. It cosmeticized the scowling face of antifeminism while blackening the feminist eye. In the process, it popularized the backlash beyond the New Right's wildest dreams.


The press didn't set out with this, or any other intention; like any large institution, its movements aren't premeditated or programmatic, just grossly susceptible to the prevailing political currents. Even so, the press, carried by tides it rarely fathomed, acted as a force that swept the general public, powerfully shaping the way people would think and talk about feminist legacy and the ailments it supposedly inflicted on women.

So now, finally, I come to the real issues that Mr. Penn wished to raise, and in doing so, I again turn to Glenn Greenwald; this time in his speech Century of Lies, 2011 at Rice University's, Baker Institute for Public Policy,

The War on Drugs is, in my view by far, the most profound and destructive policy failure of the last 50 years. Every generation has various policies that future generations look back upon - not with just disagreement - but with bafflement as to how the citizenry could possibly have failed to realize the irrationality and evil of very conventions and orthodoxies...


Advocates of drug prohibition typically cite a variety of problems grounded in drug usage and related pathologies as to why that policy is justified and yet the amazing thing about the War on Drugs, about drug prohibition is that that policy, at best, has no effect on those problems and, in most cases, exacerbates them and makes them far worse.


One of the most comprehensive studies on drug prohibition was issued this year by the Global Commission on Drug Policy and it was composed by some of the world's leading experts in the area including people like former UN Secretary Kobi Anan, the former Secretary General of NATO, multiple former presidents of a variety of countries, people like George Schultz, Paul Volcker and the report was incredibly well-documented but it's bottom line was as stark and it is obvious. And that is:


"The global war on drugs has failed."


Not is failing, not is likely to fail - but has failed.


I think the easiest way to understand why that's so and the magnitude of the failure is to compare it to a historical precedent which is alcohol prohibition because alcohol prohibition, like the War on Drugs, did almost nothing to alleviate the problem it was intended to address which was the decision by many adults to consume alcohol. And yet what it did instead was spawn extreme amounts of violence in the form of gangs and others who, because alcohol was driven underground, engaged in violence to compete for dominance over the industry.


And there really are only two differences between alcohol prohibition and drug prohibition that I can see. One is that only took Americans 13 years to realize back then what a grievous error prohibition was and they repealed it - whereas we are now going on 40 years of this incredibly failed drug war. And the second is that the violence spawned by drug prohibition is so much greater than the violence spawned by alcohol prohibition....


So let's look at the cost of this War on Drugs that has now been going on for decades. The first cost is that it has turned the United States into the world's largest prison state. We imprison 2.4 million citizens - more than any country on the planet, by far - including countries that have larger populations than the United States such as China and India.


I think the most striking statistic in this regard is that the United States accounts for just under 5% of the world's population and yet 25% of the world's prison population is on American soil. 1 out of every 4 prisoners is in an American prison. The primary reason for that development, there are several, but the primary reason is our obsession with drug prohibition and the Drug War. In federal prisons, for example, 57% of inmates are serving time on drug charges and most of them were convicted on charges of possession not distribution.


Beyond this sprawling prison state the War on Drugs is indescribably racist both in application and effect...


As a result of these racial disparities he said, "America's criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace."...


Now there are economic costs of the drug war which are astronomical. When you add up the costs of law enforcement, of arresting drug users, bringing them into the criminal justice system, prosecuting them, imprisoning them, and then add to that the extraordinary and always growing interdiction efforts that the U.S. government engages in both domestically and internationally - it's called a drug war because we employ our military to a vast extent in order to find drug supplies and disrupt them. The costs are in the hundreds of billions of dollars...


And so the economic costs, this hundreds of billions of dollars that have been expended in a variety of ways over those decades has huge opportunity costs - think of the things we could do with that money...


Then there's the fact that the drug war has spawned a very under-discussed and yet glaring evil and that is the privatized prison industry. Our prison populations are simply too great due to the drug war for states to manage any longer...


Then there is the destruction of civil liberties that the War on Drugs has brought and ushered in and continues to usher in. I write a lot about the erosion of civil liberties and the War on Terror but the precursor to almost every one of those abuses is the War on Drugs....


For the full text please go to Century of Lies, 2011. And, I thoroughly encourage everyone to read Mr. Greenwald's speech in its entirety.

These are the issues for which Mr. Penn and Ms. del Castillo risked their lives. However, instead of being praised by fellow journalist for having attempted to initiate a debate on the failed War on Drug, these two people have been berated and chastised by journalists and citizens, alike.

I hope people, and journalists, will cease and desist from deviating the public, and other journalists, from the important issues at hand. And, rather than squabbling over semantic and personal attacks on Mr. Penn's writing style and personal opinions—which quite frankly have more logic and sanity to them than most of the other ones I have heard, or read, to date—address and discuss the issues laid forth by the esteemed lawyer and journalist (who is not a real journalist either), Glenn Greenwald in his speech above.

[1] Oprah Winfrey left Tennessee State University in 1976 to begin her career in media (completing her degree in 1986)


[3] The New Journalism is a 1973 anthology of journalism edited by Tom Wolfe and E. W. Johnson. The book is both a manifesto for a new type of journalism by Wolfe, and a collection of examples of New Journalism by American writers, covering a variety of subjects from the frivolous (baton twirling competitions) to the deadly serious (theVietnam War). The pieces are notable because they do not conform to the standard dispassionate and even-handed model of journalism. Rather they incorporate literary devices usually only found in fictional works.