On Oct. 2, 2015, Sean Penn flew to Mexico for what could have been the most disastrous and even deadly night of his life.
The actor had been invited to a sit-down with Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the drug lord better known as “El Chapo.” Joined by Mexican soap-opera star Kate del Castillo, who had arranged the meeting, their journey required two planes and a rocky seven-hour ride in an SUV to a remote location near the city of Cosalá in the Mexican state of Sinaloa.
Guzmán, who had escaped from a Mexican prison just months earlier, hadn’t invited his guests to discuss drug trafficking. He wanted their help making a movie about his life.
It was a gathering of two international superstars, and it’s debatable who was the most famous.
Guzmán had a notoriety akin to Al Capone’s in the 1930s — both were listed as “Public Enemy No. 1” by the Chicago Crime Commission. Penn, a vocal opponent of the War on Drugs, was well aware of El Chapo’s reputation and eager for a face-to-face conversation.
Guzmán, however, was unfamiliar with Penn. His lawyers had to explain the Hollywood star’s résumé — they mentioned “21 Grams” and “The Crossing Guard” — but it wasn’t until Guzmán personally Googled Penn that he agreed to the meeting.
He didn’t realize his conversations were being monitored by the DEA, which had wiretapped Guzmán’s phones. As Alan Feuer writes in “El Jefe: The Stalking of Chapo Guzmán” (Flatiron Books), out Aug. 25, “it was undeniably mental that the NSA — the NSA — had used its secret hardware to eavesdrop on the world’s most wanted criminal vetting Sean Penn’s Hollywood career.”
Penn was noncommittal about making a movie with or about Guzmán. He took the trip to Mexico solely to interview the kingpin for Rolling Stone magazine. He just hadn’t shared that detail yet with Guzmán, a man known for not enjoying surprises.
It was a recipe for catastrophe.
The saga began four years earlier, in 2012, with a tweet.
“Today I believe more in El Chapo Guzmán than I do in the governments that hide truths from me,” Kate del Castillo wrote on Twitter. She included a personal plea to the cartel leader: “Mr. Chapo, wouldn’t it be cool if you started trafficking with the good? Let’s traffic with love, you know how.”
Guzmán, a fan of del Castillo’s performance in the Mexican soap opera “La Reina del Sur” — in which she played a character based on drug lord Sandra Ávila Beltrán, a friend of Guzmán’s — took note. After his arrest in 2014, he had his lawyers contact her, offering full rights to hiss life story. They gave her a special phone so she could communicate directly with Guzmán via text message.
Del Castillo had good reason to think a movie about El Chapo would be a worthwhile project. From his cross-border tunnels to his outlandish escapes from prison, his story was ripe for a big-screen retelling.
“It was often impossible with Chapo Guzmán to know where the folklore ended and the facts began,” Feuer writes. “The anecdotes about his life and crimes had been passed from hand to hand so often they had finally acquired the edgeless quality of fables.”
True or not, tales of his exploits had made him a legend among the poor in Mexico, the ordinary people “saddled with a history of abuse and neglect by the authorities.” He was like a Robin Hood for the 21st century, one who didn’t necessarily take from the rich and give to the poor but who “reinforced a pre-existing belief that Mexico’s rulers were the fools that everyone assumed them to be.”
On the surface, it was great fodder for a movie. There was only one problem: Guzmán’s rampant paranoia and his history of brutality, especially against people he suspected of betrayal. His enemies weren’t just assassinated, their bodies were hung from bridges and often dismembered.
“In one attack, 14 headless bodies were discovered in a car near the local customs office,” Feuer writes. “The heads were elsewhere: stuffed in plastic coolers in front of City Hall.”
Doing illegal business with Guzmán was a risky endeavor, but even something as innocuous as collaborating on a movie project was asking for trouble.
Long before he contacted del Castillo, Guzmán already had a script in the works. The personal assistant of his personal assistant, a Colombian actress named Angie Sanclemente, first suggested the idea of a biopic to Guzmán and had connected him with a producer from Colombia, Javier Rey, willing to ghostwrite the script. But the deal fell apart before a first draft could be delivered.
“Rey had unwisely tried to strong-arm his subject into giving up 35 percent of the project’s profits,” Feuer writes. “Guzmán, insulted, began to suspect that Rey was an informant.”
He hatched a plot to lure Rey to his death with the promise of a quick advance payment, but the producer caught wind of the plot and escaped before El Chapo could have him killed.
Del Castillo knew nothing of the near-murder of Rey when she agreed to meet with him in Mexico. Neither did Sean Penn.
But being killed by a drug kingpin with a history of beheading his enemies was not, as it turns out, the main reason they were in danger.
Long before Penn and del Castillo boarded a plane for Mexico, plots were underway for the Mexican marines to raid Guzmán’s hideout and bring him into custody.
The marines, otherwise known as the Naval Infantry Force, are an elite US-trained force with a reputation for ruthlessness. In 2009, they killed another Mexican drug kingpin, Arturo Beltrán Leyva, and “covered his naked body in cash and put pictures of it on the Internet,” Feuer writes.
Ray Donovan, head of the DEA special-operations division who had been overseeing the hunt for Guzmán since his latest escape, learned of Penn and del Castillo’s visit and suggested the raid be postponed.
“Donovan was stunned to hear that the marines still wanted to go forward,” Feuer writes. “Their attitude appeared to be: F- -k Sean Penn, the raid goes on as planned.”
The only thing that stopped it was a storm, which blew through the mountains with sheets of monsoon rain and “great bolts of lightning . . . like flash-bang grenades,” as Penn would write for Rolling Stone.
It was, at least to US officials, a narrowly-averted disaster.
“The Americans felt incredibly lucky that the weather made it impossible to launch the attack,” Feuer tells The Post. “It removed the possibility of Sean Penn’s name being splashed across front pages everywhere as a casualty of a drug-war capture operation. ‘US Film Star Killed in Mexico Raid’ would not have been a good look for the DEA.”
The Mexican marines finally caught Guzmán in January 2016, and Mexico’s attorney general claimed Penn’s secret meeting was “essential” to the capture (Feuer disagrees, since authorities already knew where Guzmán was).
Penn later admitted he had “terrible regret” about his meeting with Guzmán, saying in an interview with Charlie Rose that it failed to “contribute to this conversation on the war on drugs.”
Just before Guzmán was captured for the last time, he was putting “the finishing touches on [his] movie project,” Feuer writes. “He had lovingly assembled an 18-page promotional package for the film.”
Guzmán’s movie pitch was sidelined after his arrest, and today he’s serving a life sentence at the ADX penitentiary in Florence, Colo., the nation’s highest-security prison. But his Hollywood ambitions may not be behind him.
“I know for certain that Guzman is still trying to peddle his movie from prison,” Feuer tells The Post. “I can’t quite say how I know that, but he is absolutely actively seeking to get the film made to this day.”