Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, the infamous drug lord known as “El Chapo,” was found guilty on all counts against him and now faces a lifetime in prison, ending a remarkable fall for a kingpin who spent years evading law enforcement officials while they say he continued amassing power and wealth atop a sprawling empire.
Guzmán gained worldwide notoriety for the reach of the Sinaloa cartel, which prosecutors have called “the world’s largest and most prolific drug trafficking organization,” and for his own audacious escapes from Mexican prisons. He spent years on the run, assembling what U.S. authorities have described as a private army. Following his most recent prison escape in 2015, using a tunnel dug to his cell, he was hunted again, arrested again and then extradited to the United States, where he faced federal charges in multiple locations.
His trial in Brooklyn ended a little more than two years after he was removed from Mexico, where prosecutors say Guzmán, as the cartel’s leader, pumped drugs into the United States, bribed Mexican officials, laundered money and repeatedly commanded his “sicarios” — or “assassins” — to commit brutal acts of violence.
Guzmán’s conviction came after prosecutors assembled an extensive case that included cooperating witnesses and intercepted messages, which demonstrated a remarkable degree of penetration into the cartel’s activities, said John A. Horn, a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted Mexican cartel cases.
Horn said a conviction in a case like this also carries a deeper meaning.
“There does need to be a conviction of somebody like Chapo Guzmán, both for the symbolism and the pure factor of justice being served,” Horn, who is now in private practice, said in an interview before the verdict. “It does show that . . . for somebody at his level, justice will be done, it will be served. It’s an incredibly powerful victory for DOJ, for law enforcement.”
Prosecutors were unsparing in depicting Guzmán as a purveyor of brutality and horror spanning borders.
“Guzmán Loera’s bloody reign atop the Sinaloa Cartel has come to an end, and the myth that he could not be brought to justice has been laid to rest,” said Richard P. Donoghue, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, in a statement. “Today, Guzmán Loera has been held accountable for the tons of illegal narcotics he trafficked for more than two decades, the murders he ordered and committed, and the billions of dollars he reaped while causing incalculable pain and suffering to those devastated by his drugs.”
Acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker said in a statement: “This case, and more importantly, this conviction, serves as an irrefutable message to the kingpins that remain in Mexico, and those that aspire to be the next Chapo Guzmán, that eventually you will be apprehended and prosecuted.”
But defense attorneys insisted that he has been made a scapegoat. Guzmán’s lawyers asked the jury to dismiss the testimony of the government’s cooperating witnesses, describing them as liars out to save themselves by seeking the best possible deals with authorities.
Guzmán’s lawyer, A. Eduardo Balarezo, said in a statement that he is disappointed in the jury’s verdict and will consider all options, including a possible appeal.
“We were faced with extraordinary and unprecedented obstacles in defending Joaquín,” Balarezo said, including Guzmán’s detention in solitary confinement, massive amounts of discovery that were difficult to review in a timely manner and the government’s reliance on cooperating witnesses, which he said “laid bare the corruption of the criminal justice system where freedom is traded by the government in exchange for testimony.”
For Guzmán, a conviction in a U.S. courtroom that guarantees life in prison cuts to the heart of his underworld myth, which only grew while he was a notorious fugitive.
Federal prosecutors have described Guzmán’s rise in the 1980s as being fueled by his skill at funneling cocaine into the United States and then getting proceeds back to Colombian cartels. Guzman continued expanding his empire, prosecutors said, even after he was taken into custody in Guatemala in 1993 and placed in a maximum-security prison in Mexico.
His 2001 escape from that prison — infamously said to involve him slipping away in a laundry hamper — began what would be more than a decade evading capture. Those years were filled with financial successes, violence and efforts to corrupt Mexican government officials, prosecutors said in court filings. They also said Guzmán and his associates obtained drugs and supplies from other countries and sent cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines and marijuana into the United States.
Guzmán was arrested again in 2014, and he escaped into the tunnel the following year. In 2016, he was arrested once more and spent a year in custody before his extradition.
The drug trade was a gold mine for Guzmán, enabling him to “exponentially increase his profits to staggering levels,” prosecutors said in one court filing. But a key part of that, prosecutors continued, was “thousands of acts of violence” — including murder, torture and kidnappings — committed by assassins and aimed at possible witnesses or people who sought to help law enforcement.
Prosecutors say Guzmán carried out some of the violence personally. During closing arguments in the trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Goldbarg said Guzmán once cursed and shot two men, both of whom were already badly beaten, for working with a rival cartel. He then ordered their bodies thrown into a bonfire, Goldbarg said.
Court papers unsealed Friday, after closing arguments had concluded, included allegations that Guzmán raped girls as young as 13. An attorney for Guzmán said he denied the allegations.
While Guzmán had sought to shield his communications from authorities, he also wiretapped people around him — including his family, mistresses and other associates — which Goldbarg said ultimately helped law enforcement officials.
The IT technician who set up a system for Guzmán to surveil those around him gave it to the FBI. Goldbarg said Guzmán found out the technician was working with U.S. authorities and sought to have him killed, but no one could find him. The technician testified at trial.