The long-awaited trial of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán has begun in New York, with prosecutors accusing him of heading up the world’s most powerful drug cartel from 1989 to 2014, bringing cocaine into the United States at times worth up to $10m a day.
But in his opening remarks on Tuesday, a lawyer for Guzmán told the jury the prosecution had fallen for the “myth of El Chapo” to distract from a failed “war on drugs”, and claimed that his client was a scapegoat for the real leader of the Sinaloa cartel.
Defence attorney Jeffrey Lichtman alleged on behalf of his client that that Mexican officials – including current and former presidents – had received bribes to protect Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, another reputed trafficker who is still at large.
A spokesman for outgoing president Enrique Peña Nieto called the allegation “false and defamatory”, while his predecessor Felipe Calderón tweeted that the remarks were “absolutely false and reckless”.
Opening statements by both sides indicated that the trial will hinge on the testimony of former allies of Guzmán, who have turned state’s evidence. Each side promised a bitter battle over the veracity and credibility of such witnesses.
Guzmán entered court at 9.30am, wearing a dark blue suit and tie. He tried to approach his wife, Emma Coronel, but was dissuaded by court marshals.
His initial appearance was brief, as the court adjourned for six hours while two new jurors were found – one woman who had burst into tears last week upon learning she had been selected was recused after further “signs of distress”, said Judge Brian Cogan.
The prosecution’s opening statement contained few surprises but important clues on the upcoming appearance of erstwhile allies of Guzmán among the witnesses.
Former members of Guzmán’s own cartel will appear, prosecutor Adam Fels told the court, to “testify about their own criminal conduct and the criminal conduct of Guzmán”.
Fels prepared the jury to “take into account” that the witnesses will have enjoyed recompense for their co-operation – “perhaps a reduction of sentence”, he said. But he told the court: “the information of these insiders will be supported by other evidence”.
Fels outlined Guzmán’s rise through an ability to get cocaine into the United States “as quickly as possible”, earning the name ‘El Rapido’ – “the speedy one”, and his direct dealing with Colombian suppliers in order to maximise profits on “hundreds of tons of cocaine” to ten times its supply value.
Guzmán founded the Sinaloa cartel with Zambada, said Fels, and after he was jailed in 1993 “even the four walls of that prison did not stop Guzmán running his empire”.
After escaping in 2001, Guzmán began the widespread corruption of Mexican police and officialdom, and launched a takeover of border smuggling routes that turned the city of Ciuada Juárez “into a war zone,” the court heard.
Fels said the jury would see video of Guzmán interrogating a rival, after which “Guzmán pulled the trigger and ordered his men to dispose of the body”, and hear his voice across an “ever more sophisticated network of communications … directing his operations” with “step-by-step instructions”.
Fels told the court that prosecutors will prove how vast profits were moved “back to Mexico”, but he made no reference to settlements with banks in the US handling Guzmán’s money north of the border.
For the defence, Lichtmann said Guzmán had been “scapegoated” ever since the murder of Mexican Cardinal Juan Jesús Posada Ocampo in 1993 (which has been hitherto ascribed to members of the Tijuana Cartel). Lichtman said the assassination was a hit by the Mexican government “to shut the Cardinal up” – then blame Guzmán in order to “scapegoat” him, he said
Lichtman pledged to reveal an “uglier side to the story, a side that the governments of Mexico and the United States do not want you to hear”, about “how government officials at the very highest levels can be bribed” and “allow drug kingpins to operate openly … mostly for money”. He specified the two Mexican presidents, though not by name.
Lichtman mocked what he called the celebrity of Guzmán, saying his client’s image and name were “in films and articles, on hats, t-shirts and lunchboxes”; Guzmán, he said, had “become a myth not only worldwide, but also to the prosecution”.
He said the cartel was being run by “a man who has never been to jail … who is not having films made about him, has not meet Sean Penn, who is not on lunchboxes, a man you’ve never heard of: Ismael Zambada García, known as El Mayo”.
The co-operating witnesses, he said, will include “El Mayo Zambada’s brother and both his sons” despite his “leadership of the cartel”. Lichtman asked how the US could have “his sons and his brother in custody, but somehow the authorities cannot get the information to carry out his arrest”.
Lichtman poured scorn on the co-operating witnesses, saying: “they are killers, they are thieves, they are drug dealers” who have “paid off law enforcement and even the DEA [Drugs Enforcement Administration] of America”.
The Guardian has learned that these witnesses will include Pedro and Margarito Flores, twin brothers convictedof flooding Chicago with heroin; and Damaso López Nuñez, Guzmán’s former lieutentant.
All are in US custody and have either agreed, or are negotiating, commuted sentences.
“The backdrop”, Lichtman told the court, “is the American war on drugs.”
“The flow of drugs never slowed down, yet [Guzmán] is blamed for being the leader while the real leaders live free in Mexico.”