Penn’s ‘Chapo’ story adds to entertainment industry’s portrayal of Mexico’s drug war

One expert says American audiences look to entertainment like “Sicario” to learn about Mexico’s culture. Yet what many of these dramatic accounts leave behind is the complexity of the drug-related conflict. (Photo via Bago Games/FlickrCC)

The recent recapture of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the head of the violent Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico, weaved a tale that rivals any telenovela. It doesn’t hurt that actor Sean Penn thrust himself in the latest chapter.

The episode sparked a debate about the fascination with popular narcotic cultural icons – film, TV, and music – consumed by binational audiences and the consequences.

Penn’s meeting with Guzman in Mexico last October led to a controversial 10,000-word piece in Rolling Stone
that casts light on a larger matter: Hollywood’s fascination with narcos and how it portrays drug traffickers.

Whether fictional or based on historical events, these works tread a strange line on how people on both sides of the border view the drug trade and its leading characters. The issue also raised ethical, journalistic questions.

Penn’s piece, which appeared a day after the arrest of Guzman, has faced heavy criticism from the media world, with critics claiming it overshadows the work done by journalists covering the dangerous drug problem in Mexico and the U.S.

“It is in some ways a slap in the face to media workers and journalists for this Hollywood celebrity to parachute in, get this interview and then hop right back out, without providing any context, without really going deep into the story,” said Bernardo Ruiz, a documentary filmmaker who has covered the impact of the drug war in Mexico. “We are at a moment in time when media companies are generating a lot of entertainment around this conflict.”

Interviews with viewers in Phoenix underscored how the public is torn about narco culture.

Lorenia Osete, 53, who teaches youth at the Pima County Jail, said that though adults are able to tell the difference between fact and fiction, younger audiences may not.

“I teach many youth who use drugs and weapons and all that,” Osete said. “For them, they totally glorify this stuff. They are brainwashed by these shows.”

Yet whether these shows are highly stylized or not, viewers are at least staying conscious of the issues happening in Mexico and the U.S., said Phoenix resident Kyle Shearer, 25, who watched the Netflix hit “Narcos.”

“I think straying away from topics is worse than dealing with the potential consequences of people taking away something that wasn’t intended,” Shearer said.

Recent “narco culture” entertainment, ranging from television shows to movies, reflect the narco icons and culture in neighborhoods on both sides of the border, including Phoenix. The American telenovela “El Señor de los Cielos” (“The Lord of the Skies”) is the tale of a powerful drug dealer wanted by authorities (the show is based on the story of drug lord Amado Carrillo Fuentes).

More than 3 million people saw the show’s third season premiere last April, according to Nielsen. It was the most-watched show that night regardless of language for ages 18-49 in Phoenix.

Netflix’s 2015 series “Narcos,” a show looking at the life of real Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar through the 1980s, is one of the best-reviewed shows offered by the streaming service. It has an aggregate score of 9.0/10 by more than 70,000 people on IMDb.

Also released last year was the action-thriller “Sicario,” a movie about an FBI task force assigned to capture the leader of a violent drug cartel. The movie drew in multiple Oscar nominations and $46.9 million at the domestic box office, according to Box Office Mojo.

Alejandro Lugo, the director for the School of Transborder Studies at Arizona State University, believes Rolling Stone’s piece on Guzman “glorifies him in the intention to make him more human.”

“Nobody should deny that El Chapo is human,” he said. “But also, nobody should say that the violence that has occurred through drug trafficking is secondary.”

Penn’s recounting itself is made for a Hollywood script, containing everything from a secret arrangement to meet Guzman with a famous Mexican actress, over tequila, to a comparison of Guzman to Tony Montana, the fictional Cuban drug boss played by Al Pacino in “Scarface.”

Guzman, according to law enforcement officials on both sides of the border, is said to be responsible for tens of thousands of deaths in drug-related conflict. It’s a violence that Penn fails to make clear in his article, according to Ruiz and Lugo. News stories of drug killings and arrests are full of graphic descriptions of violence.

Kate del Castillo, the Mexican actress that helped arrange the meeting between Penn and Guzman, is the star of “La Reina del Sur,” a telenovela about a Mexican woman who leads a drug empire in Spain. The show’s popularity has led to a forthcoming adaptation for USA network.

Lugo, an anthropologist who specializes in border culture, said American audiences look to entertainment like “La Reina del Sur” or “Sicario” to learn about Mexico’s culture. Yet what many of these dramatic accounts leave behind is the complexity of the drug-related conflict.

“The product is being presented as being somehow cultural, at some level,” he said.

And because of that the audiences open up,” Lugo said. “But that culture is being stereotyped. It is a culture that’s being commoditized, and therefore glorified.”

Ruiz, the filmmaker, added: “I think that what frequently gets overlooked are the voices of ordinary citizens, both in this country and in Mexico,” Ruiz said. “What’s very obvious is that those stories don’t get the attention that a Hollywood celebrity does, or that an action thriller does, or even that a slickly produced documentary does.”

In an interview with Charlie Rose for “60 Minutes” this week, Penn said, “I have a regret that the entire discussion about this article ignores its purpose, which was to try to contribute to this discussion about the policy in the War on Drugs.”

Meanwhile, the process to possibly extradite Guzman to the U.S. could reportedly take a year or longer. For now, he remains in the same Mexican prison from which he escaped last July.