Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman convicted in U.S. trial
Guzman, 61, faces the possibility of life in prison
Mexico's most notorious drug lord, Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman, was convicted Tuesday of running an industrial-scale smuggling operation after a three-month trial packed with Hollywood-style tales of grisly killings, political payoffs, cocaine hidden in jalapeno cans, jewel-encrusted guns and a naked escape with his girlfriend through a tunnel.
Guzman faced a drumbeat of drug-trafficking and conspiracy convictions that could put the 61-year-old escape artist behind bars for decades in a maximum-security U.S. prison selected to thwart another one of the breakouts that embarrassed his native country.
Jurors convicted him on all 10 counts that are likely to put him behind bars for the rest of his life. He is set to be sentenced on June 25.
Guzman had no hope of being freed if found not guilty, as he faced charges at a state level in several other jurisdictions.
New York jurors — seven women and five men — whose identities were kept secret reached a verdict after deliberating six days, sorting through what authorities called an "avalanche" of evidence gathered since the late 1980s that Guzman and his murderous Sinaloa drug cartel made billions of dollars by smuggling tons of cocaine, heroin, meth and marijuana into the U.S.
As the judge read the verdict, Guzman stared at the jury straight-faced. When the jury was discharged, he leaned back in his chair to catch the eye of his wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, who gave him a subtle thumbs-up. Several minutes later, she had nothing to say as reporters shouted questions at her as she entered a vehicle outside the court.
U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan lauded the jury's meticulous attention to detail and the "remarkable" approach it took toward deliberations. Cogan said it made him "very proud to be an American."
Outside the court, U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue called it a "day of reckoning," promising the government would continue to root out cartel-related drug-running and corruption.
"This conviction is a victory for every family who's lost a loved one to the black hole of addiction," he said. "There are those who say the war on drugs is not worth fighting. Those people are wrong … every seizure, every arrest and every conviction contributes to a noble effort to save American lives."
Evidence showed drugs poured into the U.S. through secret tunnels or hidden in tanker trucks, concealed in the undercarriage of passenger cars and packed in rail cars passing through legitimate points of entry.
The prosecution's case against Guzman, a roughly 5½-foot figure whose nickname translates to "Shorty," included the testimony of former associates and other witnesses. Among them were Guzman's former Sinaloa lieutenants, a computer encryption expert and a Colombian cocaine supplier who underwent extreme plastic surgery to disguise his appearance.
One Sinaloa insider described Mexican workers getting contact highs while packing cocaine into thousands of jalapeno cans — shipments that totalled 25 to 30 tonnes of cocaine worth $500 million US each year. Another testified how Guzman sometimes acted as his own sicario, or hitman, punishing a Sinaloan who dared to work for another cartel by kidnapping him, beating and shooting him and having his men bury the victim while he was still alive, gasping for air.
The defence case lasted just 30 minutes. Guzman's lawyers did not deny his crimes as much as argue he was a fall guy for government witnesses who were more evil than he was.
Defence attorney Jeffrey Lichtman urged the jury in closing arguments not to believe government witnesses who "lie, steal, cheat, deal drugs and kill people."
On Tuesday, Lichtman called the conviction "devastating," but he said he was proud that the defence "left it all on the battlefield." He admitted the evidence was overwhelming.
Lichtman said he believed there were grounds for an appeal.
He said his client was a "highly intelligent guy" and upbeat, at times "raising the spirits" of his own defence team.
"We took the obligation [of providing a defence] very seriously," said Lichtman, who called it an "honour" to represent Guzman.
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Deliberations were complicated by the trial's vast scope. Jurors were tasked with making 53 decisions about whether prosecutors have proven different elements of the case.
The trial cast a harsh glare on the corruption that allowed the cartel to flourish. Colombian trafficker Alex Cifuentes caused a stir by testifying that former Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto took a $100-million bribe from Guzman. Pena Nieto denied it, but the allegation fit a theme: politicians, army commanders, police and prosecutors, all on the take.
The tension at times was cut by some of the trial's sideshows, such as the sight of Guzman and his wife showing up in matching burgundy velvet blazers in a gesture of solidarity. Another day, a Chapo-size actor who played the kingpin in the TV series Narcos: Mexico came to watch, telling reporters that seeing the defendant flash him a smile was "surreal."
While the trial was dominated by Guzman's persona as a near-mythical outlaw who carried a diamond-encrusted handgun and stayed one step ahead of the law, the jury never heard from Guzman himself, except when he told the judge he wouldn't testify.
But his sing-songy voice filled the courtroom, thanks to recordings of intercepted phone calls. "Amigo!" he said to a cartel distributor in Chicago. "Here at your service."
One of the trial's most memorable tales came from girlfriend Lucero Guadalupe Sanchez Lopez, who testified she was in bed in a safe house with an on-the-run Guzman in 2014 when Mexican marines started breaking down his door. She said Guzman led her to a trap door beneath a bathtub that opened up to a tunnel that allowed them to escape.
Asked what he was wearing, she replied: "He was naked. He took off running. He left us behind."
The defendant had previously escaped from jail by hiding in a laundry bin in 2001. He then got an escort from crooked police officers into Mexico City before retreating to one of his many mountainside hideaways. In 2014, he pulled off another jail break, escaping through a mile-long lighted tunnel on a motorcycle on rails.
Even when Guzman was recaptured in 2016 before his extradition to the United States, he was plotting another escape, prosecutor Andrea Goldbarg said in closing arguments.
"Why? Because he is guilty and he never wanted to be in a position where he would have to answer for his crimes," she told the jury. "He wanted to avoid sitting right there. In front of you."
The verdict was also praised by law enforcement officials in the Trump administration.
Acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker said the U.S. will continue to work in conjunction with the Mexican government to combat drug traffickers.
"This case — and more importantly, this conviction — serves as an irrefutable message to the kingpins that remain in Mexico, and those that aspire to be the next Chapo Guzman, that eventually you will be apprehended and prosecuted," he said.
Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen said the verdict sends an unmistakable message to transnational criminals:
"You cannot hide, you are not beyond our reach, and we will find you and bring you to face justice."
With files from CBC News and Reuters