Mexican drug lord ‘El Chapo’ Guzman convicted on all counts in U.S. trial
|National Post 12 Feb 2019 at 13:50|
NEW YORK — Mexico’s most notorious drug lord, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, was convicted Tuesday of running an industrial-scale smuggling operation after a three-month trial packed with Hollywood-style tales of grisly killings, political payoffs, cocaine hidden in jalapeno cans, jewel-encrusted guns and a naked escape with his mistress through a tunnel.
Guzman faced a drumbeat of drug-trafficking and conspiracy convictions that could put the 61-year-old escape artist behind bars for decades in a maximum-security U.S. prison selected to thwart another one of the breakouts that made him a folk hero in his native country.
New York jurors whose identities were kept secret six days in the expansive case, sorting through what authorities called an “avalanche” of evidence gathered since the late 1980s that Guzman and his murderous Sinaloa drug cartel made billions in profits by smuggling tons of cocaine, heroin, meth and marijuana into the U.S.
Emma Coronel Aispuro, wife of Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, leaves the U.S. Federal Courthouse after the verdict was announced. KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images
As the judge read the verdict, Guzman stared at the jury straight-faced. When the jury was discharged, he leaned back in his chair to catch the eye of his wife, who gave him a subtle thumbs-up.
U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan lauded the jury’s meticulous attention to detail and the “remarkable” approach it took toward deliberations. Cogan said it made him “very proud to be an American.”
Evidence showed drugs poured into the U.S. through secret tunnels or hidden in tanker trucks, concealed in the undercarriage of passenger cars and packed in rail cars passing through legitimate points of entry — suggesting that a border wall wouldn’t be much of a worry.
In this Jan. 8, 2016 file photo, drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is made to face the media in Mexico City as he is escorted by Mexican soldiers following his recapture six months after escaping from a maximum security prison. Eduardo Verdugo / AP
The prosecution’s case against Guzman, a roughly 5 1/2-foot figure whose nickname translates to “Shorty,” included the testimony of several turncoats and other witnesses. Among them were Guzman’s former Sinaloa lieutenants, a computer encryption expert and a Colombian cocaine supplier who underwent extreme plastic surgery to disguise his appearance.
One Sinaloa insider described Mexican workers getting contact highs while packing cocaine into thousands of jalapeno cans — shipments that totalled 25 to 30 tons of cocaine worth $500 million each year. Another testified how Guzman sometimes acted as his own sicario, or hitman, punishing a Sinaloan who dared to work for another cartel by kidnapping him, beating and shooting him and having his men bury the victim while he was still alive, gasping for air.
The defence case lasted just half an hour. Guzman’s lawyers did not deny his crimes as much as argue he was a fall guy for government witnesses who were more evil than he was.
Defence attorney Jeffrey Lichtman urged the jury in closing arguments not to believe government witnesses who “lie, steal, cheat, deal drugs and kill people.”
On Tuesday, Lichtman called the conviction “devastating,” but he said he was proud that the defence “left it all on the battlefield.” Lichtman said the defence “fought like complete savages” and will appeal the case.
“No matter who the defendant is, you still have to fight to the death.”
He said his client was a positive thinker who “doesn’t give up.”
Upon hearing the verdict, Guzman was “as cool as a cucumber,” Lichtman added. “Honest to god, we were more upset than he was.”
Deliberations were complicated by the trial’s vast scope. Jurors were tasked with making 53 decisions about whether prosecutors have proven different elements of the case.
The trial cast a harsh glare on the corruption that allowed the cartel to flourish. Colombian trafficker Alex Cifuentes caused a stir by testifying that former Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto took a $100 million bribe from Guzman. Pena Nieto denied it, but the allegation fit a theme: politicians, army commanders, police and prosecutors, all on the take.
Alex Cifuentes-Villa, middle, pictured with “El Chapo” Guzman and an unidentified woman in the mountains of Mexico. U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York
While the trial was dominated by Guzman’s persona as a near-mythical outlaw who carried a diamond-encrusted handgun and stayed one step ahead of the law, the jury never heard from Guzman himself, except when he told the judge he wouldn’t testify.
But his sing-songy voice filled the courtroom, thanks to recordings of intercepted phone calls. “Amigo!” he said to a cartel distributor in Chicago. “Here at your service.”
One of the trial’s most memorable tales came from girlfriend Lucero Guadalupe Sanchez Lopez, who testified she was in bed in a safe house with an on-the-run Guzman in 2014 when Mexican marines started breaking down his door. She said Guzman led her to a trap door beneath a bathtub that opened up to a tunnel that allowed them to escape.
Asked what he was wearing, she replied: “He was naked. He took off running. He left us behind.”
In this 2014 photo provided by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Victor Vazquez descends into an underground tunnel from one of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmam’s homes near Culiacan, Mexico after Guzman and his mistress, Lucero Guadalupe Sanchez Lopez, had already escaped though it as authorities closed in. United States Attorney s Office for the Eastern District of New York via AP
The defendant had previously escaped from jail by hiding in a laundry bin in 2001. He then got an escort from crooked police officers into Mexico City before retreating to one of his many mountainside hideaways. In 2014, he pulled off another jail break, escaping through a mile-long lighted tunnel on a motorcycle on rails.
Even when Guzman was recaptured in 2016 before his extradition to the United States, he was plotting another escape, prosecutor Andrea Goldbarg said in closing arguments.
“Why? Because he is guilty and he never wanted to be in a position where he would have to answer for his crimes,” she told the jury. “He wanted to avoid sitting right there. In front of you.”
A vendor shows a t-shirt with the face of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera for sale Tepito, Mexico City on July 20, 2015. ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images
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