Nearly two years after his extradition from Mexico, notorious cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera faces an American jury on Tuesday in the most significant criminal trial in decades.
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 before US District Court Judge Brian Cogan in Brooklyn federal court begins with opening statements under unprecedented security measures, including armed escorts for the anonymous and partly sequestered jurors.
Even before the start of a trial that could last four months, heavily armed federal marshals and officers with bomb-sniffing dogs stood guard outside the courthouse. Metal detectors greeted visitors at the entrance to 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.
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’s suffered from anxiety since jury selection. The prosecution and defense agreed to excuse the juror.
“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, according to federal prosecutors.
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.
“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.
He 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 arrest in 2008, according to a federal indictment.
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.”