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In ‘The Day I Met El Chapo’, two celebrities do the unthinkable by meeting a most wanted drug lord

The fascinating story of Kate del Castillo and Sean Penn’s 2015 rendezvous with Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzman is now on Netflix.

The most notorious drug lord of the 21st century. A television actress who enjoys widespread popularity and acclaim in her homeland. And a globe-trotting Hollywood movie star who wants to play journalist.

Two years ago, these three individuals got together for a private meeting in a jungle in Mexico. While law enforcement officials of two countries had no idea of the location of drug smuggler Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who was on the run after having escaped from prison for the second time in his life, the two most unlikely people in the world got to meet him in person. What happened next is the stuff of Netflix originals.

The three-episode documentary series The Day I Met El Chapo: The Kate del Castillo Story looks at how Castillo’s life as a Mexican telenovela star changed overnight when she got the opportunity to have a tête-à-tête with Guzman. Months after Castillo met Guzman along with Sean Penn, the kingpin was finally arrested. And suddenly, Castillo and Penn’s secret meeting with Guzman was not a secret anymore.

The backlash was severe. While Penn got away with minor criticism, the Mexican news media insinuated, among other things, that Castillo had an affair with Guzman and even became pregnant with his child. The Enrique Peña Nieto government launched an investigation into money laundering deals that Castillo allegedly engaged in with Guzman. The government also suspected that Guzman was funding his own biopic that Castillo had agreed to back in addition to financing her equila business. For a year and a half, Castillo was ostracised in her country. In The Day I Met El Chapo, she tells her side of the story.

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The Day I Met El Chapo: The Kate del Castillo Story

Penn got to tell his version in January last year through his article in Rolling Stone magazine. Castillo refutes many of Penn’s anecdotes. For example, Penn writes that Guzman sent flowers to Castillo, which she denies. Penn writes that they were met by military officials on the way to meet Guzman, Castillo says that is untrue.

The broad-stroke details regarding how it all began are the same: Castillo tweeted in 2012 that she would rather trust Guzman than the Mexican government. This caught Guzman’s attention. A fan of Castillo’s work, particularly the series La Reina del Sur where the actress plays a drug baroness, Guzman got in touch with Castillo and soon the two reached an agreement to make a film on his life.

Castillo needed high-profile support to get the El Chapo project off the ground. Enter Penn. He told Castillo that he was interested in making a film on Guzman, when in reality, he had been commissioned by Rolling Stone to interview Guzman after the editors got to know that he was in touch with a source, Castillo.

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Sean Penn on meeting Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán | CBS

The Day I Met El Chapo runs over a little less than three hours. The first episode, Destined to Meet, establishes the rise of Castillo as a Mexican celebrity and Guzman as a feared criminal. A sense of what these personalities mean to contemporary Mexican society is put across. The second episode, Face to Face, is the most action-packed. It chronicles the events leading up to the meeting between Penn, Castillo and Guzman, and finally the meeting itself. The final hour-long episode, The Fallout, shows how everything fell apart for Castillo and Guzman while Penn escaped unscathed having gotten his article out.

Castillo, the face of the series (and also its executive producer) comes off as incredibly transparent in the interviews. She paces around the set, huffs and puffs, cries and then gets herself together and tells her story without mincing words. Joining her in front of the camera are a bunch of journalists following the case and lawyers hired by Castillo and Guzman. The makers had contacted Penn to contribute to the film, but he never responded. Once the series was announced, the actor got his legal team to halt its release, claiming that “blood will be on their [filmmakers’] hands if this film causes bodily harm.”

By and large, nothing in The Day I Met El Chapo reveals information about Penn that could get the cartel angry. At most, Penn comes off as a liar who hid his agenda of interviewing Guzman from Castillo till the last moment and thus endangered both their lives for real at an actual villain’s lair.

Sean Penn, Joaquín Guzman and Kate del Castillo. Image credit: Kate del Castillo.
Sean Penn, Joaquín Guzman and Kate del Castillo. Image credit: Kate del Castillo.
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Behind the garb of wealth and success, white collar criminals are hiding in plain sight

Understanding the forces that motivate leaders to become fraudsters.

Most con artists are very easy to like; the ones that belong to the corporate society, even more so. The Jordan Belforts of the world are confident, sharp and can smooth-talk their way into convincing people to bend at their will. For years, Harshad Mehta, a practiced con-artist, employed all-of-the-above to earn the sobriquet “big bull” on Dalaal Street. In 1992, the stockbroker used the pump and dump technique, explained later, to falsely inflate the Sensex from 1,194 points to 4,467. It was only after the scam that journalist Sucheta Dalal, acting on a tip-off, broke the story exposing how he fraudulently dipped into the banking system to finance a boom that manipulated the stock market.

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In her book ‘The confidence game’, Maria Konnikova observes that con artists are expert storytellers - “When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.” Harshad Mehta’s story was an endearing rags-to-riches tale in which an insurance agent turned stockbroker flourished based on his skill and knowledge of the market. For years, he gave hope to marketmen that they too could one day live in a 15,000 sq.ft. posh apartment with a swimming pool in upmarket Worli.

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Call it greed, addiction or smarts, the 1992 and 2001 Securities Scams, for the first time, revealed the magnitude of white collar crimes in India. To fill the gaps exposed through these scams, the Securities Laws Act 1995 widened SEBI’s jurisdiction and allowed it to regulate depositories, FIIs, venture capital funds and credit-rating agencies. SEBI further received greater autonomy to penalise capital market violations with a fine of Rs 10 lakhs.

Despite an empowered regulatory body, the next white-collar crime struck India’s capital market with a massive blow. In a confession letter, Ramalinga Raju, ex-chairman of Satyam Computers convicted of criminal conspiracy and financial fraud, disclosed that Satyam’s balance sheets were cooked up to show an excess of revenues amounting to Rs. 7,000 crore. This accounting fraud allowed the chairman to keep the share prices of the company high. The deception, once revealed to unsuspecting board members and shareholders, made the company’s stock prices crash, with the investors losing as much as Rs. 14,000 crores. The crash of India’s fourth largest software services company is often likened to the bankruptcy of Enron - both companies achieved dizzying heights but collapsed to the ground taking their shareholders with them. Ramalinga Raju wrote in his letter “it was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten”, implying that even after the realisation of consequences of the crime, it was impossible for him to rectify it.

It is theorised that white-collar crimes like these are highly rationalised. The motivation for the crime can be linked to the strain theory developed by Robert K Merton who stated that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (the importance of money, social status etc.). Not having the means to achieve those goals leads individuals to commit crimes.

Take the case of the executive who spent nine years in McKinsey as managing director and thereafter on the corporate and non-profit boards of Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, American Airlines, and Harvard Business School. Rajat Gupta was a figure of success. Furthermore, his commitment to philanthropy added an additional layer of credibility to his image. He created the American India Foundation which brought in millions of dollars in philanthropic contributions from NRIs to development programs across the country. Rajat Gupta’s descent started during the investigation on Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri-Lankan hedge fund manager accused of insider trading. Convicted for leaking confidential information about Warren Buffet’s sizeable investment plans for Goldman Sachs to Raj Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta was found guilty of conspiracy and three counts of securities fraud. Safe to say, Mr. Gupta’s philanthropic work did not sway the jury.

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The people discussed above have one thing in common - each one of them was well respected and celebrated for their industry prowess and social standing, but got sucked down a path of non-violent crime. The question remains - Why are individuals at successful positions willing to risk it all? The book Why They Do It: Inside the mind of the White-Collar Criminal based on a research by Eugene Soltes reveals a startling insight. Soltes spoke to fifty white collar criminals to understand their motivations behind the crimes. Like most of us, Soltes expected the workings of a calculated and greedy mind behind the crimes, something that could separate them from regular people. However, the results were surprisingly unnerving. According to the research, most of the executives who committed crimes made decisions the way we all do–on the basis of their intuitions and gut feelings. They often didn’t realise the consequences of their action and got caught in the flow of making more money.

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The arena of white collar crimes is full of commanding players with large and complex personalities. Billions, starring Damien Lewis and Paul Giamatti, captures the undercurrents of Wall Street and delivers a high-octane ‘ruthless attorney vs wealthy kingpin’ drama. The show looks at the fine line between success and fraud in the stock market. Bobby Axelrod, the hedge fund kingpin, skilfully walks on this fine line like a tightrope walker, making it difficult for Chuck Rhoades, a US attorney, to build a case against him.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.