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.