While a US prosecutor painted for a jury the picture of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera as the leader of a powerful and murderous drug cartel, his defense lawyer countered that Guzman was a “leader of nothing,” a myth, not a feared boss.
In opening statements before jurors in federal district court in New York, Assistant US Attorney Adam Fels described Guzman as a man who went from small-town dealer to kingpin capable of turning $10 million cocaine deals.
Fels alleged that Guzman had an army of hundreds of men with assault rifles in Mexico and he himself had a monogrammed, diamond-encrusted handgun and a gold-plated assault rifle.
“Guzman himself pulled the trigger and ordered the disposal of bodies,” Fels said.
Defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman said Guzman spent significant time in Mexican prisons, during which time the flow of drugs into the United States never slowed down.
“Yet, he’s blamed for being the leader. The truth is, he was the leader of nothing,” Lichtman said.
Guzman’s escapes from Mexican prisons furthered the myth of him as a dangerous cartel boss, his lawyer said.
“A conviction of Guzman is the biggest prize the prosecution could have dreamed of,” he told the jurors. “They claim he is the biggest drug dealer in the world. It’s false.”
Guzman, wearing a dark suit and tie, smiled and waved to someone as he entered court.
Before opening statements Tuesday, a juror – in a letter to the judge that was read aloud in court – asked to be dismissed from the case because she has suffered from anxiety since jury selection. The prosecution and defense agreed to excuse the juror.
The defense was unable to finish its statement because of time and will pick it up Wednesday morning.
The court proceedings – the most significant criminal trial in decades – come nearly two years after Guzman’s extradition from Mexico.
The man once considered the world’s biggest drug trafficker is accused of heading a criminal enterprise that spanned continents and triggered waves of bloodshed throughout his native Mexico.
His long-awaited trial, which could last four months, began under unprecedented security measures, including armed escorts for the anonymous and partly sequestered jurors.
Heavily armed federal marshals and officers with bomb-sniffing dogs stood guard outside the courthouse. Those who wished to witness the trial in person had to go through two separate security screenings – an X-ray machine and metal detector – to enter the courthouse and a similar screening to enter the courtroom. The Brooklyn Bridge shut downs each time a police motorcade – including an ambulance and a SWAT team – shuttled Guzman to and from the Manhattan federal lockup.
“El Chapo, despite his defense that he was just a minor player, was reputed to be the innovative spirit behind the Sinaloa cartel,” said Bruce Bagley, an expert on Mexico’s drug cartels at the University of Miami. “He is, in many ways, a survivor.”
His capture fueled an alarming surge in violence
Guzman, 61, has pleaded not guilty. If convicted of international drug trafficking, conspiring to murder rivals, gun charges and money laundering, he faces a sentence of life in prison.
He allegedly earned nearly $14 billion as kingpin of the Sinaloa drug cartel, which employed planes, boats and submarines to move hundreds of tons of Colombian cocaine into Mexico before shipping it to US distribution hubs.
A near-mythical figure celebrated in Mexican ballads, Guzman oversaw the smuggling of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana to wholesale distributors in Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, New York, Arizona and Los Angeles, federal prosecutors have alleged.
He is also accused of taking part in at least 30 killings as he reigned over one of Mexico’s oldest and most influential cartels.
The defense placed blame for the continuing drug trade on Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, a man who they say benefited from Guzman’s capture. Lichtman alleges the current and former presidents of Mexico “received hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes from his organization.”
A spokesman for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto denied the accusation in a statement posted on Twitter. “The government of Enrique Peña Nieto persecuted, captured, and extradited the criminal Joaquin Guzman Loera,” the statement said. “The accusations made by his lawyer are completely false and defamatory.”
Former President Felipe Calderón also denied the accusation via Twitter. “The claims made by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s lawyer are absolutely false. Neither he nor the Sinaloa cartel nor anyone else made any payments to me.”
Fels, the US attorney, said in court Tuesday that the government will prove Guzman is guilty through audio and video evidence, text messages and testimony from law enforcement officials and former associates of Guzman.
Fels said the government had access to his communications, despite his concerted efforts to keep communications private.
“For a short period of time, the government was listening, the government was recording,” Fels said.
Cartel battles bloody Mexico
“No single individual has been more consequential than Guzman in the waves of violence that Mexico has experienced in the last decade,” said David Shirk, director of the Justice in Mexico program at the University of San Diego.
Guzman reportedly initiated deadly conflicts with other major cartels that led to massive spikes in violent crime from 2008 to 2012, according to Shirk.
His capture and extradition to the United States early last year created a power vacuum that fueled an alarming surge in the bloodletting.
“Of all of the symbols involved in the kingpin strategy (of targeting high-profile crime leaders in order to weaken their organization), El Chapo was by far the most important because he grew like a rocket, because he became so rich and so powerful,” Bagley said.
‘An equal opportunity corrupter’
Over two decades, Guzman transformed the Sinaloa cartel into one of the world’s most significant organized crime groups, Bagley said. Its dominance of the international cocaine trade began with Guzman’s implementation of a more horizontal leadership structure, his propensity for violence and largesse toward corrupt public officials.
“He spread money around in industrial quantities, as they say in Mexican Spanish,” Bagley said. “He was willing to pay million-dollar bribes or even more – going from the municipality to the state up to the federal government. He was an equal-opportunity corrupter.”
The case against Guzman will be built in part on the testimony of more than a dozen cooperating witnesses, including former cartel associates already incarcerated or who have been given new identities and relocated by the US government.
Their names have remained unknown to Guzman’s defense lawyers until the eve of the trial, with prosecutors arguing that witnesses in previous cases have turned up dead.
Among those who could testify against Guzman are twin brothers from Chicago’s West Side, Margarito and Pedro Flores. They operated a wholesale cocaine and heroin distribution organization for Guzman before their arrests in 2008, a federal indictment states.
The twins became informants for the feds and went into protective custody, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. The Flores brothers pleaded guilty to narcotics distribution conspiracy after recording phone conversations in which Guzman is heard agreeing to decrease the price of a load of heroin.
Their father was “kidnapped and presumed killed as a result” of their cooperation with federal authorities, a defense attorney said when the Flores brothers were sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2015.
Sinaloa cartel remains dominant player in cocaine trade
Guzman is also known for his dramatic prison escapes. In 2001, while serving a 20-year sentence for criminal association and bribery in Mexico, he reportedly broke out by hiding in a laundry cart. He was recaptured in 2014 at a hotel in the Pacific beach town of Mazatlan. But the next year he escaped again through a hole in his cell that led to a mile-long underground tunnel.
In January 2016, authorities closed in on Guzman at a hideaway in the coastal city of Los Mochis. The next year – one day before the inauguration of US President Donald Trump – he was extradited aboard a flight from Juarez, Mexico, to New York.
He has been held in solitary confinement in a small cell at the federal lockup in Manhattan.
Nearly two years after his extradition, the Sinaloa cartel remains the dominant player in the cocaine trade, according to Bagley.
“Despite El Chapo’s apparent demise and his extradition to the United States – and I do consider it a final demise – and the inability of his children to take over the organization, Sinaloa has kept a degree of coherence because of its business model,” he said.
Said Shirk: “As important as he was to Mexico’s drug trade, ultimately Guzman will be supplanted by other traffickers as long as the drug war wages on.”
CNN’s Steve Almasy contributed to this report.