After his extradition to the US from Mexico, drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera pleaded not guilty to a 17-count indictment.
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NEW YORK – A prosecutor called accused Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán a cunning businessman who revolutionized narcotics trafficking to the United States.
A defense attorney described him as a fall guy for corrupt government officials and the world’s largest drug dealer.
The trial of the alleged former leader of the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel opened Tuesday under heavy security in and around Brooklyn federal court.
Guzmán rose from a small-time marijuana dealer in Mexico to moving tons of cocaine, heroin and other drugs from South America and his native land through a network of secret tunnels beneath the southern U.S. border, Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Fels told jurors.
Nicknamed “El Chapo,” or “shorty,” for his 5-foot-6 stature, he built an organization that used trucks, planes, trains and even a submarine to speed drugs into the exploding U.S. market for more than three decades, Fels said, reaping billions of dollars in profits.
When rivals, government informers or others got in his way, Fels said, Guzmán had them captured, tortured and killed, sometimes wielding his diamond-encrusted pistol or gold-plated AK-47 automatic rifle.
His operation was so successful, Fels said, that he also became known as “El Rapido” for the speed-to-market times of his drug shipments.
“Money, drugs, murder, a vast global trafficking organization, that’s what this trial is about,” the prosecutor told jurors.
During a trial expected to last four months, Fels said the jury would see and hear Guzmán on secret videos and audiotapes “running his narco empire in his own words.”
Prosecutors got it all wrong, defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman countered.
Guzmán has been falsely branded a drug lord by corrupt government officials in Mexico and elsewhere, Lichtman told the jury, office holders who have received millions of dollars in payoffs from major narcotics trafficking cartels.
He said Mexico’s current president and his immediate predecessor are among those who received the secret payments.
“Why did the Mexican government need a scapegoat? Because they were making too much money” from the payoffs, Lichtman argued.
Even an unnamed representative of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration was on the take, he said.
“Government officials at the very highest level can be bribed and conspire to commit crimes,” Lichtman said.
The payoffs came from the massive narcotics trafficking organization of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, Lichtman said, a Mexican drug lord he said has used bribes to avoid ever being arrested.
Lichtman also took aim at government witnesses who prosecutors say were former members of Guzmán’s crime organization.
“Imagine a group of witnesses who have lied every single day since they could walk,” Lichtman said. “People who will make your skin crawl when they testify here.”
The opening statements were delayed for much of the day because two jurors asked to be let off the panel.
One told the court she would suffer from medical issues if required to serve. The other said he is self-employed and could not miss work for four months.
Both were dismissed and replaced with alternates who had been pre-screened for the trial.
The trial is one of the highest-security court proceedings in New York City since the terrorism prosecutions of suspects in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and a related plot to bomb city landmarks.
Federal agents with bomb-detecting dogs checked the courthouse near Brooklyn’s DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights neighborhood, while NYPD Emergency Services Unit offiicers and other security personnel checked the building.
Guzmán is charged with 17 criminal counts, including drug trafficking, conspiring to murder rivals, money laundering and weapons offenses.
During the early and mid-2000s, he was allegedly a boss of the Sinaloa Cartel, the world’s largest drug-trafficking operation. Prosecutors say the enterprise imported tons of cocaine from South America into the United States.
He and other alleged members of the cartel laundered billions of dollars in U.S. drug profits and sent the money to Mexico in vehicles with hidden compartments and other clandestine means, prosecutors say.
Guzmán allegedly maintained his leadership role in the cartel even when he was behind bars in his native country.
Mexican drug lord Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman is known for daring prison escapes.
Guzmán demonstrated he could not be stopped or held for long.
He was captured in Guatemala on drug trafficking charges in 1993 and was extradited to Mexico for prosecution. He was serving a 20-year sentence in Mexico’s maximum-security Puente Grande prison when he allegedly bribed his way to a successful escape in 2001.
He was recaptured in Mexico in February 2014.
Guzmán gained international fame the following year when he escaped from Mexico’s maximum security Altiplano federal prison via a mile-long underground tunnel that associates dug to the shower in his cell. The tunnel to freedom came complete with an escape motorcycle inside.
The dramatic breakout triggered a worldwide manhunt that ended in January 2016 in a shootout with heavily armed Mexican military forces in Los Mochis, a coastal city in Sinaloa.
Guzmán initially managed to escape from a heavily fortified home there, but was captured a short distance away.
Arely Gomez González, Mexico’s attorney general at the time, said the search had yielded few valuable clues until Guzmán reached out to actors and producers and began planning a movie about his exploits.
A journey to the rugged Sierra Madre by the American actor Sean Penn drew investigators near Guzmán’s suspected hiding place.
The U.S. Marshal Service and other federal authorities have taken several security precautions to guard against future escapes.
Notorious Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman has been extradited from a prison in northern Mexico to the United States.
Guzmán was brought to New York in January 2017 after Mexican authorities authorized his extradition to face trial in Brooklyn.
He has been held in solitary confinement in a Manhattan’s high-security Metropolitan Correctional Center, where all of his activities are carefully monitored.
The Brooklyn Bridge, which spans the East River between the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan, has been closed to traffic each time that heavily armed federal officials and New York City police have transported him from his cell to the federal courthouse.
Federal authorities have taken similar security precautions for jurors and potential witnesses for Guzmán’s trial.
The names and other personal information of the jurors have been kept secret. Federal marshals will escort members of the panel to and from the courthouse for each session of the trial.
Prosecutors have held the names of their expected witnesses closely. But there have been signs that at least one of Guzmán’s alleged cartel associates may testify against him.
Vicente Zambada Niebla, a son of the alleged cartel boss Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, pleaded guilty to drug charges in Chicago federal court last week in an agreement with prosecutors.
The agreement requires Zambada Niebla to provide “complete and truthful testimony in any criminal, civil or administrative proceeding.”
The tight security surrounding Guzmán has extended to his family contacts. Last week, the trial judge denied a defense request to allow Guzmán a brief embrace with his wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, just before opening statements were to begin.
Kate del Castillo says she just “wants closure” and is hoping to get it from the release of her new three-part docuseries “The Day I Met El Chapo,” now on Netflix. (Oct. 20)
The denial came months after prosecutors told the court that Guzmán allegedly had been found in possession of written messages to encourage his wife and relatives to implement a secret communication network.
After conferring with the U.S. Marshals Service, Cogan wrote that he was “constrained to deny” the request because it would run contrary to the special administrative measures federal authorities have imposed.
The security has not pleased Guzmán .
“Due to the rules you authorized, I find it impossible to mount my defense in a case that you yourself said is very complex,” he told the judge in a February 2018 letter that was translated from Spanish.
Guzmán complained that the security restrictions made it difficult for him to get access to funds needed to pay his attorneys and research needed for the trial.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Kevin McCoy on Twitter: @kmccoynyc
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