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El Chapo drug trafficking trial: Mexican cartel boss found guilty

Mexico’s most notorious drug lord, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who rose from poverty in rural Mexico to run a global drug empire and amass billions of dollars, has been convicted on drug-trafficking charges.

Guzmán faced a litany of charges in his trial in Brooklyn – and his guilty verdict could put the 61-year-old behind bars for decades.

New York jurors – whose identities were kept secret – reached a verdict after deliberating six days in the case, sorting through what authorities called an “avalanche” of evidence that Guzmán and his Sinaloa drug cartel made billions in profits by smuggling tons of cocaine, heroin, meth and marijuana into the US.

He is set to be sentenced on 25 June.

Evidence showed drugs poured into the US 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 included the testimony of several turncoats and other witnesses. Among them were Guzmán’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 jalapeño cans shipments that totaled 25 to 30 tons of cocaine worth $500m each year.

Why did Mexico launch its war on drugs?

On 10 December 2006, president Felipe Calderón, launched Mexico’s war on drugs by sending 6,500 troops into his home state of Michoacán, where rival cartels were engaged in tit-for-tat massacres.

Calderón declared war eight days after taking power – a move widely seen as an attempt to boost his own legitimacy after a bitterly contested election victory. Within two months, around 20,000 troops were involved in operations across the country.

What has the war cost so far?

The US has donated at least $1.5bn through the Merida Initiative since 2008, while Mexico has spent at least $54bn on security and defence since 2007. Critics say that this influx of cash has helped create an opaque security industry open to corruption at every level.

But the biggest costs have been human: since 2007, around 230,000 people have been murdered and more than 28,000 reported as disappeared. Human rights groups have also detailed a vast rise in human rights abuses by security forces.

As the cartels have fractured and diversified, other violent crimes such as kidnapping and extortion have also surged. In addition, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by violence. 

What has been achieved?

Improved collaboration between the US and Mexico has resulted in numerous high-profile arrests and drug busts. Officials say 25 of the 37 drug traffickers on Calderón’s most-wanted list have been jailed, extradited to the US or killed, although not all of these actions have been independently corroborated.

The biggest victory – and most embarrassing blunder – under Peña Nieto’s leadership was the recapture, escape and another recapture of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloa cartel.

While the crackdown and capture of kingpins has won praise from the media and US, it has done little to reduce the violence.

How is the US involved?

Mexico’s decade-long war on drugs would never have been possible without the huge injection of American cash and military cooperation under the Merida Initiative. The funds have continued to flow despite growing evidence of serious human rights violations. 


Photograph: Pedro Pardo/AFP

Another testified how Guzmán 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 defense case lasted just half an hour. 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.

Defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman urged the jury in closing arguments not to believe government witnesses who “lie, steal, cheat, deal drugs and kill people.”

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 lresident Enrique Peña Nieto took a $100m bribe from Guzman. Peña 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, Emma Coronel Aispuro, 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”.

Guzman pictured in a police booking photo in 2015.



Guzman pictured in a police booking photo in 2015. Photograph: Handout/Reuters

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-song 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.”

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