Tuesday 26 January 2016

Sean Penn’s “Secret Visit” With El Chapo Has Become Everyone’s Business

Sean Penn, El Chapo, Mexico, United States, privacy, surveillance, encryption, VPN, secure messenger
Penn defends his interview on 60 Minutes. [Source: CBS News/60 Minutes via AP]

 On January 9, 2016, Rolling Stone magazine published an interview by American actor Sean Penn titled “El Chapo Speaks: A secret visit with the most wanted man in the world.” A short two weeks later, little about the visit has remained secret.

Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, known less casually as the powerful Mexican drug lord behind the infamous Sinaloa Cartel, made headlines last July when he successfully escaped from prison for a second time. His status as a wanted fugitive made Penn’s October interview all the more significant and also meant that numerous security precautions were required to arrange the meeting. In his article, Penn spoke at length of El Chapo’s “unusual trust,” as well as Blackphones, encryption, TracPhones, BBM messages and escorts by car and plane.

According to the Mexican authorities, the trust and security provided was not enough to shield El Chapo’s location from the powers that be. On January 8, Mexican marines apprehended El Chapo; shortly thereafter, Mexico’s attorney general described Penn’s October visit as “essential” to the capture. Penn himself has since denied a connection between his visit and El Chapo’s arrest, but his article’s words seem to imply otherwise: “Since our late-night visit in the Mexican mountains, raids on ranches there have been relentless. A war zone. Navy helicopters waging air assaults and inserting troops. Helos shot down by Sinaloa cartel gunmen. Marines killed. Cartel fighters killed. Campasinos killed or displaced…On Friday, January 8th, 2016, it happened. El Chapo was captured and arrested – alive.”

In jail El Chapo remains, but the fallout from this “secret” visit is far from over. Kate del Castillo, the Mexican actress who has been in communication with El Chapo since 2012 and arranged the meeting via BBM, has argued that the Mexican government is now trying to “destroy” her. Under investigation is del Castillo’s relationship with El Chapo, as well as whether illicit funds from him were used by del Castillo to launch her Honor del Castillo tequila business. The evidence comes in part from secret communications themselves: on January 13, Mexican news source Milenio published a series of encrypted BlackBerry messages between del Castillo and El Chapo leading up to the October visit, proving that what was thought to be secure was anything but.

Of the three, only Sean Penn does not currently find himself in legal trouble, but his 10,000-word account of the visit has left many wanting more. Journalists everywhere, including 60 Minutes’ Charlie Rose, are questioning Penn’s journalistic integrity and ability given his final product was a piece that failed to ask or answer tough questions and received its final approval from its subject. Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal was offended Penn would choose to profile El Chapo when there are “others more deserving of the attention.” The UK’s Daily Mail went so far as to publish the headline, “Sean Penn spotted for the first time since speaking about drug lord El Chapo during Charlie Rose interview as he spends time with son Hopper” with a series of invasive pictures. In attempting to share a secret with the world, Penn seems to have lost his rights to a personal opinion or to privacy.

This is one saga that appears to be far from over, but several lessons have already been learned. Most importantly, if you, like Penn, call yourself “the single most technologically illiterate man left standing,” educate yourself. El Chapo may have shown an “unusual trust,” but Penn displayed a blind trust in his “experiential journalism” process and now must face the aftermath, for himself and for others. Ultimately, the user must know how and when and when not to use the technology at his fingertips.

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