No hugs for the king of drugs: US gets severe with El Chapo
The trial of the notorious Mexican druglord gets off to a dramatic start
The trial of accused Mexican druglord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman began with lawyers’ opening statements in a federal court in Brooklyn on Tuesday, amid intense public attention and extraordinary security measures.
Federal prosecutors say that as leader of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, Guzman, 61, directed massive shipments of heroin, cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine bound for the US. He faces 17 criminal counts and a potential life sentence if convicted.
As well as smuggling drugs to the US, the Sinaloa Cartel has played a major role in narco violence between rival gangs that tore areas of Mexico apart and defied successive governments.
More than 200,000 people have been killed – many in cartel feuds – since the Mexican government sent troops to take on the drug gangs in 2006.
Guzman’s lawyers have signalled that they intended to downplay their client’s role in the cartel and argue that the prosecutors’ witnesses were motivated by self-interest and not believable.
Guzman, who twice dramatically escaped from Mexican maximum security prisons, has been kept in solitary confinement in Manhattan and transported to court in Brooklyn in a heavily guarded motorcade.
The security around him is so strict that US district judge Brian Cogan, who is presiding over the case, last week denied a motion by Guzman asking to hug his wife before the trial.
The jurors will remain anonymous and be escorted by armed US marshals. Prosecutors said the security was necessary because of Guzman’s history of intimidating and even ordering murders of potential witnesses. Guzman’s lawyers have called those claims unfounded.
Prosecutors have also taken extraordinary measures to protect witnesses they plan to call during the trial, which could last up to four months.
According to court filings, those witnesses will include former Sinaloa Cartel members and others involved in the drug trade who are now cooperating with the US government. None have been publicly named, and some may testify under aliases.
Guzman was one of the world’s most wanted fugitives until he was captured in January 2016 in his native Sinaloa. He was extradited to the US a year later.
In 2009, Forbes Magazine put him on its list of the world’s richest people, with an estimated $1bn fortune, but investigators said it was impossible to know exactly how much he was worth.
Guzman used his wealth to buy off politicians, police chiefs, soldiers and judges, Mexican prosecutors say. His nickname, a reference to his 1.67-metre height, is often translated in English as “Shorty”.
Several former Guzman associates are known to have struck deals to cooperate with US prosecutors, raising the possibility that they will appear on the witness stand.
They include Vicente Zambada, son of top Sinaloa Cartel figure Ismael Zambada, who pledged to cooperate in a plea agreement made public last week, and Chicago-born twins Pedro and Margarito Flores, one-time drug traffickers who secretly taped Guzman.
The defence will be spearheaded by Eduardo Balarezo and William Purpura, who previously defended Mexican drug lord Alfredo Beltran Leyva, and Jeffrey Lichtman, best known for securing the acquittal of mafia boss John Gotti's son.
Beltran Leyva, once a partner and later a rival of Guzman, was found guilty of US drug charges and sentenced to life in prison by a federal judge in Washington last year.
– © Reuters