Kate del Castillo still faces tough questions from critics who think she sanitized the image of a violent and dangerous criminal.
Kate del Castillo still faces tough questions from critics who think she sanitized the image of a violent and dangerous criminal.
Amanda Lopez

Actress Kate del Castillo Was Royalty in Mexico — Then She Crossed Paths With El Chapo

On a hazy spring morning in a gated community in the canyons west of Brentwood, Mexican actress Kate del Castillo is sitting at a white marble table in her dining room. Lola, her mini-pinscher in a spiked collar, lounges at her bare feet.

Del Castillo is wearing faded blue jeans ripped in both knees and an olive green tactical dress shirt with two buttoned shoulder epaulets. She is a peculiar mix of beauty and plainness. There is the chestnut-colored hair spilling voluminously over her shoulders, the heavy arched brows and leonine eyes that recall a starlet from the golden age of Mexican film, someone like Dolores Del Río, whose biography sits on a shelf in the living room.

But there is an Everywoman quality to her round face and square jaw, and a reluctance to smile, which makes her seem as direct as the female gangsters she plays on TV. She's no less direct when the conversation turns to the real-life gangster with whom her story has been messily intertwined: Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, Mexico's most notorious drug lord, who in January was transferred to New York to face multiple charges of drug trafficking and murder.

Del Castillo's own exile is of the much more pleasant Los Angeles variety. Through the French doors and beyond the sparkling infinity pool, long white clouds drift through a boundless blue sky.

"He has this way of looking at you that you feel like daggers," she says of the drug lord. "It's mesmerizing — the way he looks at you is like crazy eyes. But he was a gentleman, smiling the entire time."

Del Castillo grew up in show business royalty in Mexico. Her father, Eric del Castillo, is a well-known actor in Mexico, a kind of Mexican Henry Fonda. Kate del Castillo began acting professionally when she was 9.

Most recently, del Castillo starred in the Netflix drama Ingobernable. But when the show had its red-carpet premiere in Mexico City on March 22, she was nearly 2,000 miles away, at her L.A. home with a bottle of tequila, watching the live feed on Instagram. Earlier in the day, she was beamed in via satellite to join a panel of the show's cast. "It's a shame I can't be there tonight to hug my colleagues," she said tearfully toward the end of the broadcast. "I wish you all the very best."

"I was miserable," she says.

Kate del Castillo in Ingobernable
Kate del Castillo in Ingobernable
Courtesy Netflix

Ingobernable is a political thriller shot on location in Mexico City, but del Castillo's parts had to be filmed in San Diego, because the actress fears she would be arrested if she returned to her home country. She says she is wanted for questioning in relation to a now-infamous meeting she had in October 2015 with El Chapo when he was still on the run.

She and the Hollywood A-listers traveling with her to El Chapo's jungle hideout became an international spectacle — which, depending on whom you ask, could be either good or bad publicity for a film project; del Castillo says she has secured both the film rights to El Chapo's life and the blessing of the cartel boss.

The men with whom del Castillo traveled to Mexico to meet El Chapo at his hideout have made their careers in part on taking risks and courting controversy. Argentine producers Fernando Sulichin and José Ibáñez, associates of Oliver Stone, had previously met clandestinely with Edward Snowden in Russia. As for the biggest name in the entourage, Sean Penn, The New Yorker once wrote in a profile of the Oscar winner that he "has cast himself on the world stage as a sort of one-man Citizen Watch."

But the Mexican actress was the only member of the party to be subpoenaed and threatened with arrest. At one point, the Mexican attorney general uttered the memorable phrase: "Insofar as Mr. Oliver Stone is concerned, no accusation currently exists against him." Ditto for Penn, who had accompanied the escapade to El Chapo's hideout. "I can understand that I probably embarrassed the government by being down there," del Castillo says now, 15 months later, "but I was not the only one there."

Penn did not respond to a request for comment for this story, nor did Sulichin. (Ibañez could not be reached.)

Del Castillo has given slews of interviews about El Chapo and the movie rights and the decision to meet with him in secret in Sinaloa. She has spoken less about the fear and betrayal as a result of that meeting in the jungle, and how the crucible of exile might end up boosting her career.

Aside from renewing Ingobernable for a second season, Netflix reportedly is producing a documentary film on del Castillo's life, according to a source who was interviewed for the project. (Netflix has not announced the film project and did not respond to email requests for confirmation.)

"The life of Kate del Castillo will be the most interesting of any project in which she's appeared," says Jenaro Villamil, a Mexican author and journalist for Mexico City newsmagazine Proceso, who has written extensively about del Castillo.

Public opinion in Mexico is divided on del Castillo, Villamil says: Many consider her the scapegoat for a government that failed to find El Chapo before she did. Others, he says, accuse her of egotism and of confusing her life with that of the characters she plays on TV.

He says if she is guilty of anything, it's of being naive.

"You don't invite an American like Sean Penn to a meeting with El Chapo, not when El Chapo's a fugitive at the time wanted by the DEA, FBI, CIA, the Mexican army and police," he says. "That's called naivete."

Del Castillo still faces tough questions from critics who think she sanitized the image of a violent and dangerous criminal. In March, while doing publicity for Ingobernable, she was grilled by Vicky Dávila, host of W Radio of Colombia. "Is it clear to you now that he's a criminal, how much damage he has caused, how many lives have been lost to him, how many people he has killed?" Dávila asked. "Do you get that he's a crook?"

The way del Castillo tells the story, she was, at the time of the meeting, an accomplished actress entering her 40s, who was chafing within the narrow range of possibilities available to her. She is unapologetic for seizing the opportunity to secure the rights to the larger-than-life story of El Chapo Guzmán. Everything about the epic scope of the project seemed to align with del Castillo's colossal ambition. Say what you will about the slippery ethics of all this; del Castillo's will — even in the face of the uphill battle she faces with the film — is unwavering.

"I'm not going to sit down just waiting for them to offer me the super project or super character," she says. "I'm going to go and look for it."

One morning in late January 2016, del Castillo was roused in the middle of the night by the ringing house phone. It was the security guard calling from the gate, warning her that a bunch of guys with badges was heading her way.

A dozen U.S. federal agents banged on her front door. They were part of a multi-agency task force: FBI, DEA, IRS. "They were dressed like you see in the movies, with the badge and a raincoat, and a couple of [guys in] suits," she says.

The DEA and the Department of Justice declined to comment for this story. But federal officials did confirm that a "knock-and-talk" occurred at del Castillo's home.

They were there to issue del Castillo a subpoena for a video interview of El Chapo that was published by Rolling Stone, according to her lawyer, criminal defense attorney Harland Braun. Del Castillo isn't under investigation in the United States, according to Braun.

Kate Del Castillo grew up in show business royalty in Mexico. Her father, Eric del Castillo, is a well-known actor in Mexico, a kind of Mexican Henry Fonda.
Kate Del Castillo grew up in show business royalty in Mexico. Her father, Eric del Castillo, is a well-known actor in Mexico, a kind of Mexican Henry Fonda.
Amanda Lopez

Del Castillo says they sat her down in the living room and told her they had come out of concern for her safety, which she says she didn't believe. She says she offered them coffee, but when they started in with questions about meeting with El Chapo, she refused to say anything without Braun present.

"Do you know why a dozen agents go to her house?" Braun asks. "Because she's a movie star, and they wanted to talk about it at cocktail parties. She answered their questions about the trip, and that was it. She knows nothing about what Mr. Guzmán is going to be tried on. She knows nothing else about this guy."

Del Castillo's lawyers in Mexico had warned her that the subpoena issued for her to testify to Mexican investigators could be a trap. Mexican law bars a witness in a criminal investigation from having legal counsel during questioning and permits the authorities to detain the witness for questioning for up to 80 days without bringing charges against her. Most important, the authorities could change her status from witness to suspect during the course of the questioning. "They could do anything they want to me and nobody will even know," del Castillo says. "With no lawyer present, that's how they roll."

Not long after the predawn visit from the feds, del Castillo got the call she had been most dreading. She says Netflix summoned her for a meeting at its Hollywood headquarters with Ted Sarandos, chief content officer. Filming on Ingobernable was scheduled to begin in a matter of weeks. Del Castillo says she went to the meeting fully expecting Netflix to cut ties, when Sarandos surprised her. "The first thing, Ted just opened his arms and said, 'Netflix is with you until the end.'" (Sarandos declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Del Castillo says she broke down in tears in the office. She hadn't had a leading role in a series in two years, and as a result of the Mexican government's threat to detain her, she says the cost of her cast insurance went up, and she lost acting jobs.

"I needed to work," she says, "because for so long I was just focusing on this and I was going crazy."

Del Castillo lives alone, works a lot and keeps a well-stocked bar.

She recently returned from a vacation to Madrid, her first time leaving the United States in the 15 months since her El Chapo ordeal began. In Madrid, she met with fellow cast members from La Reina del Sur, the show that launched her to international fame in the role of a female drug lord.

La Reina del Sur was a favorite of El Chapo's. But it was more than the show that caught the drug lord's eye.

Back in 2012, del Castillo published a series of tweets that stirred up a hornet's nest in Mexico. What began with declarations on topics as varied as love, marriage and the pope veered into her views on the drug war in Mexico. "Today I believe more in El Chapo Guzmán than I do in the governments that hide truths from me, even if they are painful," she wrote.

The country was convulsed by drug-war violence; the death toll in the previous five years was in the tens of thousands. Such social commentary from the La Reina del Sur star to her millions of followers was met with some disdain, especially when she then posed a direct question to the boss of the Sinaloa cartel: "Mr. Chapo, wouldn't it be cool if you started trafficking with the good? Let's traffic with love, you know how."

Hector Berrellez, a retired special agent with the DEA who began investigating El Chapo in the early 1990s, says del Castillo's tweets glorify a murderer. "Kate del Castillo is an actress who wants to make it big-time and will go to any length for fame," Berrellez says. "And she's playing with fire by trying to enamorar El Chapo Guzmán."

In time, del Castillo would become not only El Chapo's favorite actress but the object of his infatuation. "You are the best in this world," he later wrote her in a text message.

Kate del Castillo in La Reina del Sur
Kate del Castillo in La Reina del Sur
Courtesy Telemundo

Del Castillo did the tweeting from the comfort of her Brentwood villa, which she had moved into seven years earlier, around the time she put Telemundo Studios on the map for her star turn as female antihero Teresa Mendoza in La Reina del Sur. It was Latin American TV's spirited answer to the smash success of "narco-series" such as Breaking Bad — the first time ever that a telenovela was No. 1 in primetime.

L.A. was for her a place to escape the paparazzi and, she hoped, to make a break from telenovelas, and from her ex-husband. She had been in an abusive marriage in Mexico City, to a striker on the national soccer team, who she says would beat, kick and choke her. "In many ways, this man broke me," she says in a video promoting awareness of abuse against women.

"It was a pretty awful divorce and the press was all over me," she says. "So I was very embarrassed about the whole thing that had happened, and I came here, where I was already working."

When a lawyer for El Chapo emailed her in the summer of 2014, del Castillo barely had time to respond. She was playing another avenging angel of the underworld and filming in Miami six days a week. The first emails were guarded, referring to a part for her in "a big movie," a project too sensitive to enter into specifics about in an email, a pitch better delivered in person in Mexico. Del Castillo was skeptical, but mostly she was busy, and she worried a commercial flight wouldn't get her back in time for the 7 a.m. casting call.

She told him, "Send me the script."

The lawyer, Andrés Granados Flores, wrote back an email that said: "We are the lawyers of Joaquín Guzmán Loera." At the time, El Chapo was an inmate at Federal Social Readaptation Center No. 1, Mexico's most secure prison. He was a fan of del Castillo's and was offering her the exclusive rights to his life story.

"I started sweating," she says "I couldn't believe it, but I was very excited. I was totally attracted to the whole idea.

"I rented a private jet, and I went back and forth the same day."

It turns out that Granados Flores was under surveillance by the organized crime division of the Mexican attorney general's office. When del Castillo made contact with him, the surveillance extended to her.

El Chapo escaped from prison in July 2015, retreating through a tunnel under his cell. He became, in the damning appraisal of The New York Times, "a byword for government incompetence." He also added a new chapter to his life story, which made those film rights more valuable than ever.

Del Castillo says she already had secured the rights when she met El Chapo in person in October 2015. She was moving on to the next phase of the project, and she brought with her Penn and the Argentine producers linked to Oliver Stone.

Del Castillo says she had been under the impression that Penn was throwing his support to the film. She would later learn that Penn's sole purpose in joining the escapade was to meet El Chapo and interview him for an article in Rolling Stone.

The Mexican government surveillance captured them coming and going. After El Chapo was recaptured, parts of the government surveillance files were leaked to the media. Del Castillo learned the government was tapping her cellphone when a series of text messages between her and El Chapo ran as the lead story of every news outlet in Mexico, and then the world.

The texts have since passed into legend. Last summer, a nail salon in South Gate advertised "Chapo nails" — the choicest excerpts from the text messages were painted on fingernails by hand. The salon's owner says her personal favorite is the one in which El Chapo writes, "I will take care of you more than I do my own eyes," to which del Castillo replies, "No one has ever taken care of me." The hosts of NPR's Planet Money podcast staged a dramatic reading of the texts on air.

Del Castillo also learned from news reports that the Mexican Treasury Department and the U.S. Internal Revenue Service were auditing her bank statements to see if El Chapo had invested money to fund her tequila brand, Tequila Honor del Castillo. The Mexican Treasury Department and attorney general were also investigating whether El Chapo had invested money to see his life story turned into a Hollywood film.

The day after El Chapo was recaptured, Penn's meandering chronicle of the adventure in Mexico was published in Rolling Stone. The article concealed the identities of the Argentine producers with pseudonyms but identified del Castillo by name as the intermediary who had set up the meeting with El Chapo. It appeared to provide ample basis for the government's claims.

Del Castillo reread the text messages and examined the government surveillance photos taken of her the day she arrived at the airport in Guadalajara. She was under investigation, the "evidence" against her was being leaked to the press, and by her own estimation she looked guilty as hell.

"They wanted to make me look guilty," she says, "and to make me look like I'm having a relationship with this guy and that he gave me money for my tequila company and that he was going to give me money for the movie — and that I was laundering money for him."

Epigmenio Ibarra, the Mexican producer of Ingobernable, says he had del Castillo in mind for the part before the script had even been written. "Then reality played a trick on Kate, and her life came to mirror the part she was to play."

Asked how she prepared for her role as the first lady of Mexico framed for murder and hunted by the deep state, del Castillo says it was mostly instinctual.

"I was never a fugitive, but I was being persecuted by the government," she says. "They were saying I was guilty for something that I didn't do, the same as her. I'm trying to prove my innocence, same as her. You think that you're alone against the world and that nobody is with you. That's what she feels, and that's what I feel, too."

Ibarra was tasked with working around his star's legal problems. How to film a series on location in Mexico when the leading lady could be detained by authorities the moment she entered the country? Ibarra's description made the atmosphere around the shoot sound like a covert operation.

"It wasn't a simple decision," he says.

Ibarra and his team of producers decided to film in both Mexico and the United States. Location scouts found areas of San Diego to shoot del Castillo outdoors. For the street scenes filmed in Mexico City, the crew used a body double for her. "We had to transfer a team to select locations in San Diego — scenography, props, extras," he says. "It took a long time."

When production resumed after an eight-month hiatus, the Mexican media were told the series had been canceled. Ingobernable was filmed in secret, with a crew of 366 people involved in production and zero leaks to the press, Ibarra says.

The cast of Ingobernable
The cast of Ingobernable
Courtesy Netflix

Eventually, real-life drama from the drug war in Mexico intervened on set. On a warm summer afternoon in August, gunmen stormed a posh restaurant in the Mexican beach resort of Puerto Vallarta and abducted Jesús Alfredo Guzmán, the 29-year-old son of El Chapo. The younger Guzmán dropped his smartphone in the restaurant, and the investigators who recovered it discovered a selfie of him with del Castillo. She says it had been taken on the same night she met with El Chapo and was cropped to conceal that she was wearing the same outfit from that encounter — the only time she met Guzmán or his son.

"It was terrible," she says. "My picture was everywhere. It felt like going back to square one."

At the time of El Chapo's son's arrest, del Castillo was in San Diego during the last week of filming Ingobernable. She heard from security guards on set that men identifying themselves as federal agents wished to speak with her.

The men who arrived to the film set were DEA agents assigned to protect her from kidnapping.

"During the last days of the shoot," she says, "I was surrounded by DEA agents undercover."

Nothing about the past year has dimmed del Castillo's interest in telling El Chapo's life story on film. "I feel now that it's personal," she says.

She says she's confident she'll be moving forward with the project once her lawyers assure her the case against her in Mexico is closed. Days before the premiere of Ingobernable, Mexican officials dropped the threat to arrest her if she returned to Mexico. The Mexican attorney general's office announced the investigation was closed. Del Castillo says, "After all I've been through, I don't believe one word."

She says her attorneys were informed around the time of the announcement that the Mexican IRS had quietly opened a new investigation into her personal finances. "The entire year and a half, they've been auditing me, and suddenly they find a good bunch of millions of pesos [unaccounted for]? They just want to find something to justify the whole circus."

Her lawyers were in contact with El Chapo's when he was in Mexico, and she says they will have to either re-establish contact with him in U.S. prison or rely on letters from the capo to gather material. She says she plans to wait until her legal problems are resolved to begin the project.

Del Castillo imagines the project in the mold of The Godfather, an epic about the singular outlaw culture of El Chapo's native state of Sinaloa. She says she hasn't had the names of the Argentine producers linked to Oliver Stone removed from the piece of paper granting the rights to El Chapo's story. "But Mr. Guzmán knows that I don't want to work with them anymore."

The final chapter of El Chapo's crime saga will be written in a Manhattan courtroom. Del Castillo says she only knows what has been reported, that El Chapo was speedily extradited to New York City, where he is being held in his cell 23 hours a day with the lights on at all times and no access to fresh air or sunlight. She says she caught a glimpse of El Chapo on the TV news being led away to the United States, and she says the woebegone expression on his face has stayed with her.

Though she says El Chapo wished to see her star in the picture, her role will be that of producer. One day she may cast the actress who will play her in the story.

"I think he's just a fascinating character," she says of El Chapo. "I'm interested in how a little boy from Sinaloa that has no money at all, no resources at all, becomes No. 1."

Narcos, the Netflix biopic on the life of Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, was the most popular digital series in the United States last year. Netflix is expanding in Latin America, and in collaboration with Univision it has already begun filming the miniseries "El Chapo." Sony Pictures reportedly is planning a full-length motion picture on the drug kingpin. Del Castillo knows these projects will be completed before hers, but she doesn't seem worried.

"There's a bunch of them out there. You can't stop them because it's a public character, and I don't care because they don't have what I have.

"Nobody has the bad guy."

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