Secrets, threats, controversy: The El Chapo trial one month in
The Mexican drug kingpin's trial has been loaded with twists and turns, and it's only just begun
From documents under seal and accomplices with colourful nicknames to suspicions about his wife and surreal details about his high-flying lifestyle, the first month of the US trial of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman has been loaded with twists and turns.
Here are a few key moments and news notes from the proceedings in a federal courtroom in Brooklyn, where the alleged Sinaloa cartel co-founder is facing 11 trafficking, firearms and money-laundering charges.
The trial, which began on November 5 2018 with jury selection, is expected to last four months. Guzman is accused of smuggling more than 155 tons of cocaine into the US over 25 years. If convicted, the 61-year-old could spend the rest of his life behind bars in a maximum security US prison.
Documents under seal
Most of the trial documents have been kept under wraps: They are classified. Neither the media nor the public can access the motions or communications between the two sides and Judge Brian Cogan.
Prosecutors have justified the move by citing the security of the witnesses, who could be targets for payback doled out by El Chapo’s inner circle.
They have asked that the defence team’s cross-examinations be limited in scope, especially in terms of alleged kickbacks paid to the cartel by two former Mexican presidents.
Cogan has so far accepted most of the prosecution’s requests and rejected news media pleas for better access to the documents.
Wife under fire
El Chapo’s wife, 29-year-old former beauty queen Emma Coronel, has been a star of the trial so far. She sits in the public gallery each day, smiling at her husband and bringing him fresh suits to wear.
Coronel’s body-hugging wardrobe and stilettos have raised eyebrows.
Prosecutors are certainly watching her. Since Guzman’s extradition to the US in January 2017, she has been barred from visiting him and cannot speak to him on the phone.
Only attorneys are allowed to use telephones in the courthouse.
Federal attorneys cried foul when it emerged that despite those bans, she allegedly used the cellphone of one of Guzman’s attorneys in a courthouse cafeteria last month. Prosecutors said she could have used it to talk to her husband, but he is not believed to have access to a phone.
Cogan downplayed the incident and accepted explanations that she was using the phone for translation purposes.
Where is Jesus?
Attorneys for El Chapo said a mysterious statue of Jesus Malverde, the so-called patron saint of drug traffickers, a gangster born in 1870 in Guzman’s home state of Sinaloa who gave his ill-gotten gains to the poor, appeared in the room next to their workroom. A few days later, it was gone. “Where is Jesus Malverde?” tweeted Eduardo Balarezo, Guzman’s showy lawyer.
There must be an unspoken rule that drug traffickers and their associates must have nicknames. In a month of hearings, each one mentioned in court had a more colourful moniker.
Guzman, of course, is El Chapo or “Shorty”. He also goes by “Speedy” for his ability to get cocaine into the US quickly. Another of his nicknames is “The Architect”, for dreaming up the networks of tunnels under the US-Mexico border that allowed him to get narcotics into the US with ease.
Guzman’s brother is called “El Pollo” or “The Chicken”. The brother of his main associate within the Sinaloa cartel, now a key witness for the prosecution, is called “The King”.
Guzman’s Colombian cocaine source? “El Chupeta” or “Lollipop”. His pilot and manager of his dealings in Mexico? “Fatty”. His right-hand man? “The Graduate”, because he went to college.
Traffickers also use coded communications: “Girls” means airplanes; “wine” is fuel for those planes; “shirts” means cocaine; “documents” means money, one witness, “Fatty”, whose real name is Miguel Angel Martinez, said in a deposition.
Balarezo, El Chapo’s lead attorney, willingly stokes the fires of controversy. On the stand, one witness explained that a certain song was a favourite of El Chapo, and when he heard it from his prison cell, he understood that El Chapo’s associates would try to kill him that night.
What did Balarezo do? He tweeted a link to the song.
Prosecutors said the tweet was a threat to witnesses and jurors alike.
Balarezo has also taunted two former Mexican presidents: Enrique Pena Nieto, who just left office, and his predecessor, Felipe Calderon.
“Tick tock,” he said on Twitter, an apparent hint that news about bribes they allegedly took from drug cartels could be mentioned at the trial and followed up on by Mexican authorities.
Twice during the proceedings so far, prosecutors have shown the court what several kilos of cocaine look like, for emphasis. The second time, Balarezo picked it up. When prosecutors asked him to wear gloves, he shot back: “Right now, I need a pick-me-up.”