Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera escaped childhood poverty, police raids, rivals’ hits and Mexican prisons twice, but the accused Sinaloa cartel leader couldn’t outrun a guilty verdict Tuesday on drug smuggling charges from a Brooklyn federal court jury.
After a colorful 2 1/2-month trial that featured a rogues' gallery of 14 federal informants spinning daily telenovela-style episodes of love, greed and betrayal against a backdrop of gunplay, corruption, underground escapes and murders, jurors convicted the accused cocaine kingpin on their sixth day of deliberations.
Guzmán, who traded in the bushy mustache, baseball cap, and jeans-with-a-gun-in-the-waistband of his heyday for a clean-shaven suit-and-tie look in court, didn’t react when the verdict was read just after noon, but made a hand-to-heart gesture to his wife Emma as jurors left. She reciprocated, giving him a thumbs up.
Although his defense team attacked the informants and said Guzmán was a scapegoat, they never actually denied he was in the drug business. Guzmán now faces a mandatory life sentence after being found guilty of leading a criminal enterprise that smuggled $14 billion of cocaine into the United States.
Convicted as well of conspiracy, drug distribution, money laundering and firearms charges, Guzmán is also likely to face a massive financial forfeiture judgment, but there was no evidence at trial that officials have traced the vast wealth they say he accumulated over three decades.
The courtroom was tense with anticipation when the end finally came after a week of waiting. More than a dozen marshals kept watch in court, and guards in camouflage fatigues with assault rifles patrolled in a light snow outside as U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan read the verdict to a packed gallery.
Jurors’ names were kept secret because of security concerns, and they weren’t available for comment afterward. But before setting Guzmán’s sentencing for June 25, Cogan praised their work.
“It made me very proud to be an American,” he told them.
Officials acknowledge that Guzmán's two years in U.S. custody has had little impact on Mexican drug smuggling. They say two of his sons, Ivan and Jesus, have taken over his leading role in the Sinaloa cartel, along with longtime partner Ismael "Mayo" Zambada, and seizures indicate that the cartel's shipments of cocaine, heroin and marijuana continue unabated.
But prosecutors nonetheless portrayed Tuesday’s verdict as a historic victory for Americans whose families have been harmed by illegal drugs, Mexicans whose country has been wracked by violent drug wars, and law enforcement agency campaigns to make the smuggling cartels accountable.
“This is a day of reckoning, but more days of reckoning are to come,” said Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue.
And the agencies that painstakingly built the case over three decades expressed hope that the myth of El Chapo as an intrepid narco-outlaw was punctured by evidence that came out during the trial of Guzmán’s torture-murders of helpless men and sexual interests that extended to girls as young as 13.
"The real importance is that we never gave up," said Ray Donovan, the head of New York's Drug Enforcement Administration office. "Prior to the trial El Chapo was a household name, synonymous with fame and fortune. The chilling witness testimony introduced him as a ruthless killer, liar, adulterer and money launderer. It was important we display the truth.”
Guzmán’s lawyers said they were hamstrung from the start by a public assumption of guilt and special security measures that kept him in solitary confinement, and couldn’t overcome an “avalanche” of evidence including an almost unprecedented number of informants trying to please prosecutors.
They said Guzmán was a “strong guy” who was “prepared for the result” and had instructed them to keep fighting with an appeal likely to focus on issues ranging from his 2017 extradition to limits on their cross examination at trial.
“For better or worse,” said defense lawyer Jeffrey Lichtman, “this is a guy who never gives up.”
The verdict appeared to mark the start of a final chapter in the eventful life of Guzmán, 61, who was born into rural poverty in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, has said he grew poppies to make money as a teen, and became a drug lord and folk hero with celebrity rivaling the late Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar.
According to trial testimony, his prominence grew among Mexican drug traffickers in the 1990s because he brashly promised Colombian suppliers faster transit of their cocaine to the United States in return for higher fees — and delivered via innovative cross-border tunnels and a deep network of corrupt police, military and political officials.
Nicknamed “El Rapido,” Guzmán invented new methods as quickly as the old were uncovered — hiding bricks in chili pepper cans on trucks, and then building secret compartments in rail cars shipping cooking oil. He smuggled hundreds of tons, bought jets, yachts and ranches — one with a private zoo — throughout Mexico, and traveled the world, even paying for anti-aging therapy at a Swiss clinic.
The government's witnesses included characters that seemed ripped from a Hollywood script. Juan Carlos Ramírez Abadía, aka "Chupeta," a Colombian drug lord with a macabre face disfigured by multiple plastic surgeries, testified he had a role in 150 murders. Ex-mistress Lucero Sanchez told jurors about fleeing police with a naked Guzmán through a trap door under a bathtub that led to a storm sewer.
Miguel Martínez Martínez, a lieutenant with a septum damaged by cocaine, told how a band outside his prison window serenaded him with Guzmán's favorite song just before a grenade was tossed into his cell. Christian Rodriguez, an entrepreneurial young Colombian tech whiz, testified about designing an encrypted phone system with spyware for Guzmán, then flipping and exposing it all to federal agents.
The witnesses provided new details of Guzmán's prison escape in 2001 in a laundry cart, and another through a mile-long tunnel in 2015 — implicating Emma, his wife, as a message courier while she watched from the courtroom's second row — along with massive cash bribes to cops and politicians that allowed him to live on the lam and burnished his legend.
Along with the escapades, however, the trial also revealed an even darker side. Several witnesses described Guzmán's central role in prosecuting drug wars against rival cartels that killed hundreds — civilians and enemies alike. A former guard told jurors how Guzmán personally beat, tortured and killed three men, burning two of them.
In summations, defense lawyers told jurors the zeal to get Guzmán had a cost. The 14 informants who testified — including “Chupeta,” the murderous Colombian drug lord, cartel co-leader Zambada’s son Vicente and brother Rey, and Alex Cifuentes, the aide who used and procured young girls for Guzmán — would soon “live among us” as a reward, they warned.
But after the verdict, federal officials countered with a warning of their own for drug traffickers still on the loose.
“It sends a resounding message,” said Angel Melendez, the head of Homeland Security Investigations’ New York office. “You are not unreachable. You are not untouchable. And your day will come.”
List of charges:
Count 1: Engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise.
Count 2: International cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana manufacture and distribution conspiracy.
Count 3: Cocaine importation conspiracy.
Count 4: Cocaine distribution conspirary.
Count 5: International distribution of cocaine.
Count 6: International distribution of cocaine.
Count 7: International distribution of cocaine.
Count 8: International distribution of cocaine.
Count 9: Use of firearm.
Count 10: Conspiracy to launder narcotics proceeds.
Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera Timeline —
- The late 1980s: Guzmán becomes involved in drug trafficking.
- June 9, 1993: He is arrested in Mexico on murder and drug trafficking charges and is eventually sentenced to 20 years in prison.
- Jan. 19, 2001: Guzmán escapes from a federal maximum security prison in Jalisco, Mexico. While on the run, Guzman re-establishes himself as a high-ranking member of the Sinaloa Cartel and leader of the Mexican drug trade.
- Feb. 22, 2014: He is rearrested on Feb. 22, 2014, in a resort hotel in Mazatlan, Sinaloa, Mexico.
- July 11, 2015: Guzmán again escapes from a federal maximum security prison in Mexico.
- January 2016: Rolling Stone magazine publishes an interview with Guzmán conducted by actor Sean Penn at a secret location in a Mexican jungle that boosts the drug lord's profile.
- Jan. 8, 2016: Guzmán is captured after a fierce gun battle with Mexican soldiers and marines.
- Jan. 19, 2017: He is extradited from Mexico and arrives under heavy security at Long Island MacArthur Airport.
- Nov. 13, 2018: Opening statements begin in Guzmán federal trial in Brooklyn.
- Feb. 12, 2018: A jury convicts Guzmán on drug-smuggling charges.
Source: Newsday, wire reports and the United States Department of State