- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The bizarre set of circumstances that led to the capture of drug cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman last week have fueled speculation that actor Sean Penn sought him out not just for an interview but also as part of a scheme for investigators to locate the wanted man.

Conspiracy theories abound that Mr. Penn’s pursuit of an interview with Guzman was actually a CIA plant, a rumor perhaps bolstered by the Mexican attorney general who called the October meeting between the two “an essential element” in Guzman’s capture.

So if Mr. Penn really did play a role in El Chapo’s capture, will he get a reward?

After Guzman escaped from a Mexican jail in July through a tunnel burrowed into his cell, the U.S. government ponied up a $5 million reward for information that led to his capture and arrest. That’s in addition to a $3.8 million reward offered by the Mexican government.

The State Department oversees the U.S. government’s Narcotics Rewards Program and is responsible for reviewing reward proposals submitted by law enforcement agencies. Since the program’s inception in 1986, it has paid out more than $88 million in rewards for information that has led to the arrest of major drug traffickers.

But officials who oversee the program say confidentiality is a key aspect of it. If snitches are revealed, their safety could be compromised. So State Department officials declined to say whether Mr. Penn is up for any form of reward in connection with El Chapo’s capture.

“Since the Department of State Rewards Programs are processed in a classified environment to protect the identity of sources, their families, and law enforcement agents working on rewards program cases, we cannot comment on cases that we may or may not be considering for rewards payments,” said Joanna Hurlburt, a spokeswoman for the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes issued an official denial. He told MSNBC on Wednesday that Mr. Penn “was not there as a part of any U.S. government effort to apprehend El Chapo.”

Matthew Alford, a professor at the University of Bath in England, who has studied the cross-section of law enforcement and Hollywood, said the rumors about Mr. Penn’s involvement could have some basis in reality.

Mr. Alford notes the 2013 acknowledgment by Israeli billionaire Arnon Milchan, who has financed Hollywood films including “Fight Club” and “12 Years a Slave,” as well as this year’s potential Oscar contender “The Revenant,” that he secretly helped Israel develop its nuclear weapons program by providing information to its intelligence agency.

“Just last year, Frederick Forsyth, who wrote ‘The Day of the Jackal,’ admitted he had done ‘favors’ for British secret service,” Mr. Alford said. “Both of these famous creative figures had been doing it for decades. So the theory that Penn was part of a CIA sting operation is by no means outlandish.”

The 2012 film “Argo,” which won the Academy Award for best picture, centered on a Hollywood makeup artist and producer being persuaded by the U.S. government to fake the making of a film as cover for an operation to rescue American diplomats trapped in Iran. The true story of what happened was not revealed at the time.

While the State Department won’t confirm whom they pay or whom they don’t, informants have come forward in the past to complain about promised payments that were never delivered.

In 2014, The Guardian profiled an informant who claimed to have provided the tip that led to the 2007 arrest of Diego Leon Montoya Sanchez, the leader of Colombia’s most powerful drug cartel. Despite passing along the information that ratted out his boss and later being relocated to the U.S. with his family, the informant said he had yet to be paid any of the promised $5 million bounty.

Last year, former Medellin Cartel member Carlos Toro filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government seeking $5 million in payments he said he was promised for help he provided to the Drug Enforcement Administration in catching narcotics traffickers over the course of nearly three decades.

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