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El Chapo convicted in trial that revealed drug cartel’s brutality and corruption

El Chapo Convicted in Trial That Revealed Drug Cartel’s Brutality and Corruption
In a photo released by U.S. law enforcement, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the Mexican drug lord known as El Chapo, in federal custody on Long Island, Jan. 19, 2017. Loera was convicted on Feb. 12, 2019 after a trial that exposed the inner workings of his sprawling cartel, which over decades shipped tons of drugs into the United States and plagued Mexico with relentless bloodshed and corruption. (U.S. Law Enforcement via The New York Times)

Written by Alan Feuer

The Mexican crime lord known as El Chapo was convicted Tuesday after a three-month drug trial in New York City that exposed the inner workings of his sprawling cartel, which over decades shipped tons of drugs into the United States and plagued Mexico with relentless bloodshed and corruption.

The guilty verdict against the kingpin, whose real name is Joaquín Guzmán Loera, ended the career of a legendary outlaw who also served as a dark folk hero in Mexico, notorious for his innovative smuggling tactics, his violence against competitors, his storied prison breaks and his nearly unstoppable ability to evade the Mexican authorities.

The jury’s decision came more than a week after the panel started deliberations at the trial in US District Court in Brooklyn where prosecutors presented a mountain of evidence against the cartel leader, including testimony from 56 witnesses, 14 of whom once worked with Guzmán. He faces life in prison at his sentencing after being convicted of all 10 counts.

Not long after the jury got the case Feb. 4, Matthew Whitaker, the acting US attorney general, stepped into the courtroom and shook hands with each of the trial prosecutors, wishing them good luck. Over the next several days, the jurors, appearing to scrutinize the government’s evidence, asked to be given thousands of pages of testimony, including — in an unusual move — the full testimonies of six different prosecution witnesses.

Guzmán’s trial, which took place under intense media scrutiny and tight security from bomb-sniffing dogs, police snipers and federal marshals with radiation sensors, was the first time an American jury heard details about the financing, logistics and bloody history of one of the drug cartels that have long pumped huge amounts of heroin, cocaine, marijuana and synthetic drugs like fentanyl into the United States, earning traffickers billions of dollars.

But despite extensive testimony about private jets filled with cash, bodies burned in bonfires and shocking evidence that Guzmán and his men often drugged and raped young girls, the case also revealed the operatic, even absurd, nature of cartel culture. It featured accounts of traffickers taking target practice with a bazooka, a mariachi playing all night outside a jail cell and a murder plot involving a cyanide-laced arepa.

At times, the trial was so bizarre it felt like a drug-world telenovela unfolding live in the courtroom. Last month, one of Guzmán’s mistresses tearfully proclaimed her love for him even as she testified against him from the stand. The following day, in what seemed like a coordinated show of solidarity, the kingpin and his wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, appeared in court in matching red velvet smoking jackets.

Toward the end of the proceeding, Alejandro Edda, an actor who plays El Chapo on the Netflix series “Narcos: Mexico,” showed up at the trial to study Guzmán. The crime lord flashed an ecstatic smile when told Edda had come to see him.

Although Monday’s conviction dealt a blow to the Sinaloa drug cartel, which Guzmán, 61, helped to run for decades, the group continues to operate, led in part by the kingpin’s sons. In 2016 and 2017, the years when Guzmán was arrested for a final time and sent for prosecution to New York, Mexican heroin production increased by 37 percent and fentanyl seizures at the southwest border more than doubled, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The DEA, in its most recent assessment of the drug trade, noted that Guzmán’s organization and a rising power, the Jalisco New Generation cartel, “remain the greatest criminal drug threat” to the United States.

Mexican authorities began pursuing the stocky crime lord — whose nickname translates roughly to “Shorty” — in 1993 when he was blamed for a killing that epitomized for many Mexicans the extreme violence of the country’s drug wars: the assassination of the Roman Catholic cardinal, Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, at the Guadalajara airport.

Though Guzmán was convicted that same year on charges of murdering the cardinal, he escaped from prison in 2001 — in a laundry cart pushed by a jailhouse janitor — and spent the next decade either on the lam in one of his mountain hideouts or slipping through various police and military dragnets.

In 2012, he evaded capture by the FBI and Mexican federal police by ducking out the back door of his oceanview mansion in Los Cabos into a patch of thorn bushes. Two years later, after he was recaptured in a hotel in Mazatlán by the DEA and Mexican marines, he escaped from prison again — this time, through a lighted, ventilated, mile-long tunnel dug into the shower of his cell.

But following his last arrest — after a gunfight in Los Mochis, Mexico in 2016 — Guzmán was extradited to New York City, where federal prosecutors had initially indicted him in 2009. He also faced indictment in six other American judicial districts.

The top charge of the New York City indictment named Guzmán as a principal leader of a “continuing criminal enterprise” to purchase drugs from suppliers in Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Mexico’s Golden Triangle — an area including the states of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua where most of the country’s heroin and marijuana are produced.

It also accused him of earning a jaw-dropping $14 billion during his career by smuggling up to 200 tons of drugs across the US border in an array of yachts, speedboats, long-range fishing boats, airplanes, cargo trains, semi-submersible submarines, tractor-trailers filled with frozen meat and cans of jalapeños and yet another tunnel (hidden under a pool table in Agua Prieta, Mexico.)

The prosecution was years in the making and Guzmán’s trial drew upon investigative work by the FBI, the DEA, the US Coast Guard, Homeland Security Investigations and federal prosecutors in Chicago, Miami, San Diego, Washington, New York and El Paso, Texas. The trial team also relied on scores of local American police officers and authorities in Ecuador, Colombia and the Dominican Republic.

The evidence presented at the trial included dozens of surveillance photos, three sets of detailed drug ledgers, several of the defendant’s handwritten letters and hundreds of his most intimate — and incriminating — phone calls and text messages intercepted through four separate wiretap operations.

Prosecutors used all of this to trace Guzmán’s 30-year rise from a young, ambitious trafficker with a knack for speedy smuggling to a billionaire narco lord with an entourage of maids and secretaries, a portfolio of vacation homes — even a ranch with a personal zoo.

Andrea Goldbarg, an assistant US attorney, called the prosecution’s case “an avalanche” during the government’s summations. Even with the help of a Power Point presentation, complete with a slideshow of photos of the kingpin, Goldbarg took almost an entire day to lead the jury through it.

But the centerpiece of the government’s offering was testimony from a Shakespearean cast of cooperating witnesses who took the stand to spill the deepest secrets of Guzmán’s personal and professional lives.

Among the witnesses were the kingpin’s first employee; one of his personal secretaries; his chief Colombian cocaine supplier; the son of his closest partner and heir apparent to his empire; his IT expert; his top American distributor; a killer in his army of assassins; even the young mistress with whom he escaped from the Mexican marines, naked, through a tunnel that was hidden under a bathtub in his safe house.

Confronting this onslaught, Guzmán’s lawyers offered little in the way of an affirmative defense, opting instead to use cross-examination to attack the credibility of the witnesses, most of whom were seasoned criminals with their own long histories of lying, cheating, drug dealing and killing.

Late last month, there was frenzied speculation that Guzmán might testify in his own defense. But after he decided against doing so, the entire defense case lasted only 30 minutes — compared to 10 weeks for the prosecution — and consisted of a single witness and a stipulation read into the record.

In his closing argument, Jeffrey Lichtman, one of the defense lawyers, reprised a theme he first introduced during his opening statement in November, telling jurors that the real mastermind of the cartel was Guzmán’s closest partner, Ismael Zambada García.

Despite being sought by the police in Mexico for nearly 50 years, Zambada, known as El Mayo, has never been arrested. Lichtman said the reason was because Zambada had bribed virtually the entire Mexican government. Guzmán was merely “the rabbit” that authorities chased for decades, deflecting attention from his partner, Lichtman said.

Witness after witness took the stand at the trial and talked about paying off nearly every level of the Mexican police, military and political establishment — including the shocking allegation that Guzmán gave a $100 million bribe to the country’s former president, Enrique Peña Nieto, in the run-up to Mexico’s 2012 elections. There was also testimony that bribes were paid to Genaro García Luna, one of Mexico’s top former law enforcement officers, a host of Mexican generals and police officials, and almost the entire congress of Colombia.