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Prosecutor tells jury 'El Chapo' is a boss in the Sinaloa cartel

Alleged Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman

Alleged Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera is taken into custody on February 22, 2014. Credit: AFP/Getty Images/RONALDO SCHEMIDT

A Brooklyn federal prosecutor told jurors Wednesday that months of testimony at the drug smuggling trial of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera — about escape tunnels under bathtubs, armed mountain camps, spy software and encrypted phones — made it clear he was at the top of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel.

“Who travels in armored cars with security guards?” prosecutor Andrea Goldbarg asked as summations began. “Who has a rotating staff of cooks and secretaries? .  .  . Who has a private zoo with little trains for guests? Who has an army for fighting enemies, and who has enemies that need an army to fight?”

“The answer is common sense,” she said. “A boss in the Sinaloa cartel has these things.”

Guzmán, the first top leader of a Mexican cartel to go to trial, is charged in a 10-count indictment with using violence and corruption to oversee a drug business that moved $14 billion worth of cocaine into the United States over three decades. The most serious charge — operating a continuing criminal enterprise — requires proof that Guzmán was a leader of the cartel.

In a trial that began in November, prosecutors presented evidence from 14 informants who told of his murders, drug deals and prison escapes, as well as phone intercepts and text messages from Guzmán, some seized from a “spyware” system he installed on the phones of his wife, girlfriends and close aides.

Goldbarg described it as an “avalanche” and a “mountain” of evidence, and as she gave her five-hour closing argument she stood in front of a small pile laid out for the jury — boxes of seized drugs with DEA markings, bricks of cocaine, a bulletproof vest and several AK-47 assault weapons.

She started her summation recalling grim testimony last week by informant Isaias Valdez Rios describing how Guzmán personally beat two members of a rival gang, shouted curses before shooting each in the head, and then had them thrown into a grave, where his workers started a bonfire.

“The goal of the cartel was to amass billions of dollars,” she said. “The cartel’s engines were violence and corruption which allowed the defendant to impose his will on anything and anyone that stood in his way.”

Prosecutors claim that while murders and payoffs to Mexican law enforcement were his tools, Guzmán was also a clever innovator. Goldbarg outlined evidence of dozens of multi-kilo drug deals, and described how his smuggling tactics evolved from cross-border tunnels to fast boats, planes, submarines and hidden compartments in rail cars.

At one point, she used a can of “Comadre” chili peppers, the packaging Guzmán allegedly used to disguise shipments of cocaine bricks as commercial products on trucks, to demonstrate how he smuggled an estimated 90 tons into the United States in the 1990s.

Then, looking for a place to set it down, she chose the top of a pyramid of bricks. “I’ll put it on the cocaine,” she said.

Tunnels, Goldbarg told the jury, were a repeated theme of the trial. A Guzmán mistress testified about how he escaped a military raid by accessing a stormwater sewer through a tunnel underneath a bathtub, and another informant described the design of a mile-long tunnel that allowed him to escape his cell in Altiplano prison in 2015.

He previously escaped prison hiding in a laundry cart, and the prosecutor said his fixation on getaways revealed his desperation to avoid a trial in the United States. “The defendant always had an escape plan,” she said. “He didn’t want to get caught, because he knew he was guilty.”

Throughout the trial, defense lawyers questioned the credibility of the government’s informants — all either testifying in hopes of leniency in their own cases, or under agreements to avoid prosecution — and highlighted their criminal pasts, including murders, as well as drug dealing.

Those attacks are expected to continue during defense summations on Thursday, but Goldbarg urged the jurors to disregard them. “These witnesses were criminals,” she said. “The government is not asking you to like them.”

The top charge in the 10-count indictment, being a top leader of a continuing criminal enterprise, requires jurors to make findings on 26 alleged drug distribution felonies and one allegation that Guzmán conspired to commit murders to protect the cartel. The government must prove he was involved in at least three felonies and had overseen at least five members.

He also faces seven additional drug distribution and conspiracy charges, a firearms charge and a money laundering charge. U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan said he hoped the jury would be able to begin deliberations on Friday.

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