El Chapo’s Recapture: A Fictionalized Reality Show

By Núria Vilanova*

Chapo Kate Penn Film

Photo Credit: Abd allah Foteih, Fanpage.- & Sachyn Mital – (modified) / Flickr & Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 3.0

A recent interview granted by Mexican drug kingpin El Chapo and his subsequent re-arrest validate yet again the observation of Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes that no matter how hard fiction strives to emulate reality, reality always surpasses it.  Narco-lives and deeds have attracted myriad fiction writers, filmmakers, and musicians giving way to a successful narco-literature and narco-cinema that has fascinated the general public, journalists, and scholars alike.  A recent example is the popular Netflix series Narcos, based on one of the most notorious drug traffickers, Pablo Escobar.  Well known also are the corridos in Northern Mexico that sing the adventures and prowess of powerful drug lords (often in exchange for large payments).  The narco-corridos are today the epical portrayal of criminal lords whose lives straddle glory and vileness.

In the interstices between reality and fiction rest the publicity-mongering and recapture this month of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the subject of an intense six-month manhunt following his escape last July from a high-security prison.  No film would have been sufficiently credible and convincing had it attempted to stage El Chapo’s flight, but the reality is that the most prominent narco-lord since Escobar was able to vanish through a highly sophisticated tunnel whose construction required great engineering expertise.  The final seconds of his stay in his cell before entering his path to freedom were recorded by a security camera.  Megalomania – his eagerness to have his life and deeds taken to the big screen – apparently led to his undoing.  He reached out through intermediaries to soap-opera and film actress Kate del Castillo, whose role as narcotress in the popular show La reina del sur apparently captivated his heart, to set up a meeting with Hollywood star Sean Penn to present his version of his reality to the world.  Playing the role of an adventurous and intrepid journalist, Penn produced a 10,000-word report-interview for Rolling Stone magazine.  Thus, the three main characters of this story – El Chapo, Kate del Castillo, and Sean Penn – traveled from reality to fiction and back in a fictional-yet-real encounter.  The three characters straddled between two dangerous dimensions in complicity – reality and fiction – unaware that their secret meeting would somehow provide the clue that enabled Mexican security to shut El Chapo down again.

The reality-fiction play brings a much higher toll than just El Chapo’s return to prison.  Dozens of the corrido singers who extol the narcos’ lifestyle have been kidnapped, tortured, and killed in Mexico since the late 1990s.  Mexico is also at the international forefront on the number of journalists assassinated since 2006, when former President Calderón launched a bloody (and failed) war on drugs.  While the Mexican actress has not made any substantial comments on her apparent role in El Chapo’s return to prison, Penn has blustered his innocence as a courageous journalist-star whose mission was to make his countrymen reflect and make a self-critique of the bloodthirsty, futile war on drugs.  We, the audience, would probably wish this reality show would have brought about a less trivial outcome, but the last episode is not yet written.

January 25, 2016

* Núria Vilanova is Assistant Professor and Associate Chair of World Languages and Cultures.

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