Poison Penn

Published by The Daily Mail (12th January, 2016)

The gangsters had a problem. Their Sinaloa cartel was killing so many people in the battle to control Mexico’s drug trade that it was struggling to dispose of the bodies, but there were limits to how many mutilated corpses could be dumped on roads and floated down rivers.

Among the solutions found by the gang’s kingpins was to hand $600 a week to a former construction worker nicknamed El Pozolero (The Soupmaker), who boiled the bodies in caustic soda until all that was left were the teeth. These, he said, were ‘easy to get rid of’.

The ghoul disposed of 300 corpses before he was caught — one tiny illustration of the lethal ferocity of a gang fight that has wrecked vast swathes of Mexico, killed tens of thousands of people and sparked a heroin epidemic among middle-class Americans.

While the boss of that infamous cartel might boast of being the world’s biggest supplier of cocaine, crystal meth and heroin, to Hollywood star Sean Penn he is one of the good guys.

The self-aggrandising actor and activist claims the feared drug lord Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman is ‘a businessman’ who ‘only resorts to violence when he deems it advantageous to himself or his business interests’.

Pompously, he wrote: ‘I take no pride in keeping secrets that may be perceived as protecting criminals, nor do I have any gloating arrogance at posing for selfies with unknowing security men. But I’m in my rhythm. Everything I say to everyone must be true.’

Mexico’s reaction to such vaingloriousness was to launch an investigation into Penn.

As for the bloodstained gangster Guzman, the rest of us can be reassured that he is back behind bars, having escaped from his maximum security jail last July. With delicious irony, it seems that Penn’s interview with ‘El Chapo’ on the run led to his recapture, after Mexican police monitored the Oscar- winning actor’s movements.

Penn’s scoop for Rolling Stone magazine turned out to be turgid tosh: pretentious, self-indulgent and woefully written. At one point his article even discusses the ‘subtle brume’ of his own flatulence as the world’s most wanted man lays an arm over his shoulder.

Yet incredibly, given that Penn loves nothing better than posing as a Left-wing crusader — albeit one with a record of violence, who likes hanging out with autocrats — he gave the fugitive gangster ‘copy approval’ over the article.

It seems astonishing reverence to offer a man who ran a cartel responsible for thousands of deaths the right to read it before publication and vet its contents.

The wealthy star also brags of doing his journalism free of charge — hardly a sign of solidarity with the working brotherhood.

But such arrogance is typical of this former hellraiser, who personifies one of the most irritating traits of smug celebrity culture: the wholly mistaken belief that stars have a mandate to save the world.

The unpleasant Penn allegedly fired guns at helicopters during his wedding to singer Madonna — whom he later beat up — in 1985; dangled a photographer from a ninth-floor hotel balcony in Macau after catching him in his room in 1986; and once said he hopes his critics ‘die screaming of rectal cancer’. In his mind, however, he is an aid worker, diplomat and peacemaker, as well as a reporter.

As such, he has waded into conflicts from Iraq to the Falklands, referring to ‘the Malvinas of Argentina’ after meeting the nation’s then president, Cristina Kirchner, in 2012 and claiming the world would not tolerate ‘ludicrous and archaic commitment to colonialist ideology’.

He also condemned Prince William’s routine RAF deployment to the islands, saying it was ‘unthinkable that the United Kingdom can make a conscious decision to deploy a prince within the military to the Malvinas’.

Little wonder the Falklands War hero Simon Weston called him an ‘idiot’. Even The New York Times admits that many Americans see the prickly actor as ‘a tiresome pinko bloviator’ for his wearily predictable political activism and clunky attempts at journalism.

I witnessed the damage of his naive interventions after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that killed an estimated 220,000 people.

With Maria Bellow, a fellow actor turned aid worker, Penn flew into Haiti to direct his own charity operations, basing himself near the golf clubhouse in the capital, Port-au-Prince, beside a camp for thousands of displaced people.

Yet he sparked needless panic over a potential diphtheria epidemic during an over-excitable television interview in which he claimed an even bigger disaster was ‘waiting to happen’.

‘It’s just the very beginning,’ he cried when one child died in hospital after breathing tubes were probably removed accidentally. ‘People are going to die en masse.’

There was no diphtheria epidemic — nor was one anticipated by medical experts. Instead, the actor’s abuse of his platform fuelled a panic that critics claim distorted health responses for weeks amid the post-earthquake chaos.

He then helped persuade families to move from temporary homes on the golf course to flimsy tents on a barren, gravelly, cactus-strewn site ten miles from the capital that lacked jobs, healthcare and schools.

It was meant to be a flagship aid community, but when I visited two years later, the residents felt abandoned. ‘They promised us we would find everything we needed,’ said one widowed mother of three. ‘Now we are living in a desert.’

Promised factories had not materialised, water cost twice as much as in town and women were dying in labour on the three-hour journey by four buses to hospital. It was awful to witness their betrayal.

Penn’s well-intentioned blunders in Haiti are far from the worst charges against him during his many self-appointed roles on the world stage, performed when the 55-year-old actor is not pretending to be other people in his lavishly rewarded day job.

He met Fidel Castro in Cuba before having a seven-hour chat over tea and wine with his brother Raul, now the country’s president, in which Penn tried to set up a meeting with Barack Obama.

The actor was also a huge fan of the former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, whose 14 years in office saw inflation and unemployment rocket. When Chavez died in 2013, Penn called the ‘great’ man a friend and said ‘poor people around the world have lost a champion’.

The reality was rather different: the repressive Chavez regime jailed rivals, clamped down on the media and wrecked the economy, despite huge oil wealth.

Suggestions that Chavez had a disgraceful record on human rights sent Penn into such fury that he once called for journalists making such claims to be jailed. They are echoed, however, by human rights groups.

Penn acts tough, but is a middle-class son of actors. His partners have included Madonna and the actresses Scarlett Johansson and Charlize Theron, who persuaded him to turn his 67 guns into an art installation before they split up last year.

Perhaps he simply likes to provoke. For while heaping praise on dictators, he is also a strong critic of America.

‘I was brought up in a country that relished fear-based religion, corrupt government and an entire white population living on stolen property that they murdered for and that is passed on from generation to generation,’ he once declared.

His activism seemingly began in 1992, when he drove his car to investigate the Los Angeles riots provoked by the police beating of a black man, Rodney King, only to retreat when a shopping trolley smashed his windscreen.

‘Reporting missions’ to Iraq in 2002 and 2003 led him to spend $56,000 on an advertisement opposing the U.S.-led invasion. He claims the work is similar to acting: ‘Finally, you’re reaching out to people’s pain.’

Maybe Penn struggles to distinguish between real life and the movies. After all, his latest journalistic endeavour involved a bizarre series of subterfuges leading to a jungle rendezvous with the murderous Mexican cartel chief — who agreed to the interview because he wants to be a film star. Did he see Penn as a useful stooge?

One thing is certain. Such preening vanity from an award-winning actor and a psychotic drug baron serves as a damning commentary on the sanctimonious piety that so often goes with fame.

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