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Mexican drug kingpin ‘El Chapo’ pleads not guilty at arraignment in federal court

Joaquin Guzmán, known internationally as "El Chapo," is

Joaquin Guzmán, known internationally as "El Chapo," is escorted from a plane by federal agents Thursday night, Jan. 19, 2017, after it landed at Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma. Credit: Joaquin Guzmán, known internationally as “El Chapo,” is escorted from a plane by federal agents Thursday night, Jan. 19, 2017, after it landed at Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma.

The legendary Mexican drug lord known as “El Chapo,” looking sheepish and weary hours after his unexpected extradition and landing at a Long Island airport, pleaded not guilty in Brooklyn federal court Friday to a sweeping 17-count indictment that accuses him of importing 20 tons of cocaine into the United States.

Dressed in a blue prison smock and shorn of his mustache, accused kingpin Joaquin Archivaldo Guzman Loera answered “Si señor” — translated “Yes sir” by an interpreter — to several questions by Magistrate James Orenstein, but was stumped when asked if he understood the array of charges against him.

“I didn’t know until now,” said Guzman, 59, who had fought extradition but was whisked out of Mexico late Thursday and flown to Long Island MacArthur Airport to answer to the U.S. case.

Although he stands only 5-foot-6 — the nickname “El Chapo” means “Shorty” — and was towered over by a squadron of guards, authorities called him an outsized criminal threat who escaped Mexican jails twice during a violent reign atop the Sinaloa cartel and needed to be detained pending trial.

“It is difficult to imagine a person with a greater risk of fleeing prosecution,” prosecutors said in a 52-page court filing that said Guzman piled up bodies and profits as he amassed $14 billion during decades of drug trafficking that included shipment of 4 tons of cocaine into Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island.

U.S. officials agreed not to seek the death penalty as part of the extradition agreement with Mexico, but Guzman — whose next court appearance was scheduled for Feb. 3 — faces a mandatory life sentence if convicted.

“He is a man known for no other life than a life of crime, violence, death and destruction,” Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Robert Capers said at a news conference. “And now he’ll have to answer for those crimes.”

Guzman’s court-appointed federal defenders, however, cautioned that accusations aren’t proof, even for a notorious defendant. “We look forward to addressing these allegations in a courtroom,” said defense lawyer Michael Schneider.

Guzman, who maintained control and expanded his drug trafficking empire through two prison terms in Mexico, escaped once in a laundry cart and a second time through a mile-long tunnel dug into the shower in his cell. His extradition to the United States had been sought since his latest arrest a year ago.

Officials said he looked stunned as he got off a Mexican police plane at MacArthur on Thursday night and was taken to the federal jail in Manhattan, appearing to recognize that U.S. prisons would be more secure.

“As you looked into his eyes you could see the surprise, you could see the shock, and to a certain extent you could see the fear as the realization began to kick in that he’s going to face American justice,” said Angel Melendez, New York special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations.

“He’s about to face American justice in a city whose foundation is built in bedrock,” Melendez added. “And I assure you, no tunnel will be built leading to his bathroom.”

According to his indictment and other court filings, Guzman grew and sold poppies for heroin as a young boy, and during a trafficking career that began in the 1980s came to dominate Mexican smugglers by the speed with which he was able to move drugs into the United States.

He later partnered with Colombian producers and shared in profits of U.S. distribution markets, moving cocaine and other drugs through tunnels under the U.S. border as well as planes, yachts and even a submarine, employing a crew of violent hit men known as“sicarios” and corrupting Mexican officials.

Charged in six U.S. jurisdictions, Guzman will face his first test in Brooklyn on a combined indictment from New York and Florida.

If the case ever goes to trial, Capers said it would involve testimony from 40 informants and other witnesses, and provide an “intricate” look into the history and structure of the Sinaloa cartel. He compared Guzman’s criminal empire to a “small cancerous tumor that metastasized and grew into a full-blown scourge.”

Officials in Brooklyn Friday declined to comment on the timing of the extradition just before Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration.

But one Mexican official told The Washington Post that the transfer was a “farewell gift” to Barack Obama. The official said the extradition was also intended to signal to Trump that not all negotiations with Mexico would be so easy, and “nothing is for free.”

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