Sean Penn's Chapo Blunder Distorts Our View Of Drug Lords – And Their Migrant Victims

Jan 22, 2016
Originally published on January 24, 2016 10:03 am


I’d like to take acclaimed film actor and ridiculed crime writer Sean Penn to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, which until recently suffered the highest homicide rate of any city on the planet.

I’d like him to meet the families of the thousands of victims murdered by the maras, or narco-mafias, that are tied to Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa drug cartel.

That’s the syndicate headed by Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán. And Chapo is the drug lord whose recent Rolling Stone “interview” with Penn gives you the impression that narco-kingpins are just amiable, up-from-their-bootstraps fellows working hard to supply gringos with muscle relaxers.

RELATED: Chapo's Video Is A Snooze - But It Might Just Wake Up Jeb Bush

In reality they’re bloodthirsty monsters – and they’re the main reason San Pedro Sula has for the past decade been one of the largest sources of Central American migrants trekking to the United States.

Which is something Penn ought to consider this week after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to President Obama’s executive action to halt the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants.

More than a quarter of the migrants in question are Central American. Most of those folks are escaping horrific mara violence in the region’s northern triangle – Guatemala, Honduras and especially El Salvador, which is blood-stained right now with the world’s highest national homicide rate.

Yet Americans rarely think of this Central American flight as a refugee concern, the way we’ve been conditioned to think of Syrians or Cubans as refugees.

And that psychological downgrade of the Central American terror makes it easier for immigration foes to oppose reforms like Obama’s. As long as we’re not equating New World butchers like Chapo – or the tattooed gangs that rule whole sectors of the northern triangle – with Old World butchers like Boko Haram or Bashar al-Assad, there will be much less sympathy for the Salvadoran than there is for the Syrian.

Penn’s blundering foray into drug-war journalism unfortunately encourages that disparity. That’s because Penn the Hollywood star doesn’t confront Chapo the homicidal hood. He indulges Chapo’s Robin Hood – the delusion that Latin American drug lords are just cocaine-carting versions of the region’s guerrilla chiefs.

It’s the sort of naivete that suggests drug cartels are somehow more benign than ISIS – even though Central American slaughterers like Los Kaibiles were beheading their victims years before ISIS ever darkened the Middle East.

I’ll be the first to credit Penn’s relief work in places like post-earthquake Haiti. And his Chapo nonsense does remind us that many Latin Americans themselves romanticize drug traffickers  – evidenced by far too many really bad narco-corrido ballads.

I also understand the temptation to humanize criminals. As a drug-war correspondent I’ve faced that lure myself whenever I’ve visited cartel assassins in prisons and heard them “explain” their inexplicable evil.

But whatever sympathy you muster for these animals vanishes whenever you report from killing fields like Sinaloa, Chapo’s home state. Or from San Pedro Sula barrios like Rivera Hernández, where Sinaloa-linked maras are notorious for abducting, torturing and killing teen-age girls in casas locas, “madhouses” they forcibly seize from residents.

“They destroy whole communities and give people no choice but to leave,” René Maradiaga, the uncle of one of those murdered girls, 13-year-old Andrea Argeñal, told me as we stood last summer behind the casa loca where Andrea’s corpse was eventually found.

That’s a big reason Obama issued his immigration decision in 2014. And it’s why his administration finally announced last week that, along with the U.N., it will set up screening centers in Central America to help people like Rivera Hernández denizens register as refugees.


Meanwhile, I hope the Supreme Court justices avoid reading Penn’s amateur chronicle of his secret visit with Chapo, who was recaptured by Mexican authorities this month.

Instead, I hope they pick up volumes like Don Winslow’s 2015 novel The Cartel, a heavily researched work dedicated to the hundreds of Latin American journalists murdered by drug mobs. Or recent books by my colleagues, like Alfredo Corchado's Midnight In Mexico and Ioan Grillo’s new Gangster Warlords, which show los narcos for the psychopathic ogres they really are.

Or that they look at the example here of Christian de Berdouare and Jennifer Valoppi. They’re the new owners of the Miami Beach mansion once occupied by infamous Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar – a property they’re demolishing this week because of its “negative energy.”

In the process they’re helping bulldoze the mythology that’s all too often conferred on narco-murderers. And changing that mindset might in turn help us build a more just immigration system for those fleeing the bloodshed.

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