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I’ve interviewed drug lords on the lam: Sean Penn did a great job

Misha Glenny is a journalist and author who specializes in organized crime. His latest book is Nemesis: One Man and the Battle for Rio.


Sean Penn displayed courage, ingenuity and persistence in his meeting in an obscure part of northwestern Mexico with Joaquin Archivaldo Guzman Loera, known as El Chapo, and the most powerful drug cartel leader in Mexico. The encounter with one of the most wanted men alive was quite the scoop.

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But he has come under immense fire for even attempting to interview the man who is complicit in the deaths of many of the tens of thousands of victims in Mexico's drug wars.

If the Mexican authorities are to be believed, the Penn visit had one very important consequence. They claim it helped them ferret out the drug boss and, a few weeks later, they arrested him.

The same criticism has been levelled at me for having spent 30 hours interviewing the man who ran Rio de Janeiro's largest slum, or favela, for five years. He, too, was the boss of the local cocaine operation. But in contrast with many favela drug lords, he sought ways of reducing the role of violence in his business operation. That was not just his or my opinion, it was also the belief of the police team who investigated him.

It is the job of the journalist to reveal the circumstances that led to a life in drugs and danger – and how individuals respond to them in different ways. Why do some choose to go down a criminal road and others avoid it? Is there a compulsion, a necessity or, indeed, a genuine fear that leads them to take such decisions?

That's what Mr. Penn was doing and, for that, his efforts should be applauded.

Over the past 10 years, I have met dozens of people involved in criminal activities and I have interviewed many of them. Some of them, such as the Ukrainian gang boss I met in Odessa with his bull-necked entourage, have been extremely intimidating. Others, such as one of the members of the FARC, the revolutionary army in Colombia that doubles as an industrial-scale cocaine producer, have been intelligent and well read.

One Bulgarian gangster I talked to about his role in taking over key companies was extremely keen to explain the importance of his ilk in the wake of communism's collapse. "The state had stopped functioning," he said.

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"If it wasn't for mafia men like me, nobody would have had food on the table. We were about meeting people's basic needs." I thought at the time he did protest too much, but there was a certain validity to his fundamental argument.

Organized crime is responsible for a significant proportion of the global economy and its impact on society has been immense. Dismissing people involved in criminal syndicates as somehow intrinsically evil is easy to do. But in my experience, their engagement in murder, theft, people trafficking and smuggling is usually the consequence of a complex constellation of events.

Most people are united by an instinct to tell stories and, in particular, to tell their own story. One thing that the accumulated interviews I have done with gangsters suggests to me is that organized criminality and violence tend to flourish where state institutions are weak, absent or corrupted. Organized crime is not just about individuals, it is about systems and environments. El Chapo is not the only person responsible for deaths in Mexico. The police, local and federal, the military and other government agencies also carry considerable responsibility.

And the primary driver behind the exceptional levels of violence in Mexico is a failed policy: the war on drugs. This bloody anachronism guarantees the monumental profits that a killer such as El Chapo can make out of drugs and hence, his ability to afford military-style weaponry.

Slobodan Milosevic, one of the primary instigators of the bloodshed in Yugoslavia, is among the criminals I have interviewed. Nobody would have suggested that talking to him somehow broke journalism's ethical boundaries. And several people have interviewed President Bashar al-Assad since the outbreak of civil war in Syria. Journalism is not about making moral judgments.

Journalism is about finding out what has happened, what people have done, and what their motivation was. It is for the reader to decide on the relevant morality of the actors involved.

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