The actor Sean Penn has been under fire lately, because of an interview he recently conducted with Joaquin Guzman, otherwise known as El Chapo: Shorty, in Spanish. El Chapo is probably the most famous druglord in the world. Penn’s interview was published in the most recent issue of Rolling Stone. It was also immediately ridiculed by pretty much every late night comic. El Chapo is famously reclusive; now, suddenly, he’s best buddies with a movie star? Shades of Dennis Rodman/Kim Jung Un? Hilarious. Also, over the weekend, the Mexican police arrested El Chapo, and suggested that they were able to find him, in part, because of information found in Penn’s interview. So El Chapo is presently in prison. We’ll see how long that lasts; he’s escaped from prison twice before.
Anyway, Penn’s interview has been widely ridiculed, first, because it happened, and second, because Sean Penn’s writing style is somewhat pretentious (and therefore comical). The idea of a movie star weighing in on American drug policy is seen as ludicrous. He’s a naive, silly, privileged white American celebrity; of course, he’s ridiculous. Shame on Rolling Stone for publishing it. What were they thinking? And so on.
So I thought I’d read the article. Make up my own mind about it. If the article is indeed silly, I’d make fun of it too.
Here’s the shocker: it’s not silly at all. It’s not very well written. But Sean Penn is a serious man, who asks serious questions. Is he naive? Does El Chapo dupe him? Is this just nonsensical pro-drug cartel propaganda? I don’t know. But look past the infelicities of Penn’s prose. There’s a thoughful critique of American drug policy in Penn’s piece: here’s the link. Read it yourself.
Start here: Economics 101, Prices are set by the immutable laws of supply and demand. If demand is high, prices (and profits) will rise. If, for any commodity, we artificially reduce supply, and demand remains high, prices and profits will skyrocket. If, for example, we make certain drugs illegal, and demand for those drugs remains constant, the result, inevitably, will be El Chapo. A drug cartel. That is to say, some ruthless person will create a highly organized and extraordinarily profitable, criminal enterprise. In fact, lots of cartels will rise, and compete. And, while competing, will shoot each other. A lot.
All of which El Chapo knows, I think. Here’s an excerpt:
Is it true what they say that drugs destroy humanity and bring harm?
Well, it’s a reality that drugs destroy. Unfortunately, as I said, where I grew up there was no other way and there still isn’t a way to survive, no way to work in our economy to be able to make a living.
Do you think it is true you are responsible for the high level of drug addiction in the world?
No, that is false, because the day I don’t exist, it’s not going to decrease in any way at all. That’s false.
Did your drug business grow and expand when you were in jail?
From what I can tell, and what I know, everything is the same. Nothing has decreased. Nothing has increased.
Do you consider yourself a violent person?
Are you prone to violence, or do you use it as a last resort?
Look, all I do is defend myself, nothing more. But do I start trouble? Never.
What is your opinion about the situation in Mexico, what is the outlook for Mexico?
Well, drug trafficking is already part of a culture that originated from the ancestors. And not only in Mexico. This is worldwide.
El Chapo, in Penn’s interview, is completely unrepentant. He says, proudly, that he supplies more heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana than anyone else in the world. He’s proud of it. He’s quite open about his money-laundering efforts, and points to many respectable international corporations who are his business partners. Eventually, he wants to invest more in the energy sector. Of course, he’s a murderer, he admits. But not indiscriminately; only when it’s a matter of business. Does Penn glamorize him; does he soft-pedal El Chapo’s murders? No, not really. Also, sure, of course he does. Sean Penn’s a movie star. He’s considering making a movie about this guy. He’s pitching that movie to us, the audience.
Should movies glorify criminals? I don’t know if they should, but that is what they do, at least at times.
What about, for example, the Godfather films? Don’t those films sentimentalize Don Corleone? Don’t they turn the Don into something of a Teddy Bear? (In fact, the Don’s downfall is partly because he’s unwilling to get into the drug business. It’s ‘infama,’ he says). Isn’t Michael Corleone a family man, a war hero, a legitimate businessman? Sure. But also, of course, a stone-cold killer. What about Scarface? We think of the ’83 De Palma film, with Al Pacino, but the 1932 film had every bit as important a director (Howard Hawks), and an equally compelling lead performance, with Paul Muni. Hollywood likes gangsters; always has. Also gangstas, nowadays. As long as they’re Americans. Or white. Or, at least, can plausibly be played by a young Al Pacino. Or some supercool black dude.
Of course, for every film glamorizing gangsters, there are twenty glamorizing the cops who catch and arrest brutally kill gangsters. Sicario, one of the best films of 2015, is an example. In that film, Emily Blunt’s FBI agent is laughed at by Josh Brolin, her partner, when she suggests that they arrest a suspect in the drug trade. That’s not really what they do. Murder’s more final.
Penn got the interview through the Mexican actress Kate del Castillo, who famously wrote an open letter to El Chapo, encouraging him to use his wealth and power to promote the power of love, and not the power of violence or money. Of course, that really is sort of charmingly naive. But she also said that she trusts El Chapo more than she trusts the Mexican government, and that’s a pretty popular opinion in her country. In her subsequent interactions with him, she discovered that Chapo was interested in a film about his life. As she pitched that idea to various Hollywood producers, Penn heard of it, and got interested. It wasn’t just Penn interviewing the guy; del Castillo was there too.
His article, then, is partly a self-glorifying narrative of how he got to meet this guy, but that’s not its main purpose. Mostly, it’s a critique of the United States’ ‘War on Drugs,’ a policy or series of policies that, argues Penn, have unequivocally failed. Again, Penn does not write terribly well. Frankly, some sentences, you don’t even know what he’s saying. His article is passionate, but he does, at times, come across as cluelessly naive. He likes Joaquin Guzman, based on one short dinner and subsequent conversation. There are 27,000 drug-related homicides in Mexico a year. There is a part of me that wants Penn to interview the families of those murder victims. Do that next, pal.
But on one crucial point, he is right. US drug policy has failed. We’ve treated a public health problem as though it was a criminal justice problem. Our prisons are crowded, with non-violent offenders getting a PhD in criminality at taxpayers expense. We also treat an economic problem as though it was a moral problem. El Chapo’s fortune is the result. If he had not made that fortune, someone else would have. Arresting him (and extraditing him to the US, which is in the works), is viscerally satisfying. A really really bad guy is going to do hard time. Awesome. It will accomplish exactly nothing.
Really, it’s time to try something else. Legalization and treatment, for starters. And wave goodbye to the prospects of any politician in America who proposes that solution. Which, to be clear, is probably the only solution with a chance of working. Sean Penn wrote a serious article on a serious subject, and has been made to look like a buffoon. That’s where our public debate is on drugs. And that’s a shame.