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El Chapo trial provides a deep look inside the Sinaloa cartel’s drug empire

Defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman, left, gives closing arguments during the trial of accused Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, center right, as Guzmán’s wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, looks on, in this courtroom sketch in Brooklyn federal court in New York on Thursday. (Jane Rosenberg/Reuters)

NEW YORK — Two months of testimony in a federal courtroom here have offered an unprecedented glimpse into the inner workings of the Sinaloa drug cartel, complete with tales of gruesome murders, diamond-encrusted pistols, caches of cocaine smuggled in cans of peppers and, at the center of it all, a defendant who twice escaped from prison.

The trial of notorious drug lord Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera — known as “El Chapo” — has shown in meticulous detail how the cartel smuggles drugs from Mexico into the United States, where it has fueled a deadly nationwide drug crisis. The flow of the cartel’s drugs, the prosecution said, relied on underground tunnels and hidden compartments in vehicles — methods that would not have been thwarted by any border wall.

The billions of dollars’ worth of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines and marijuana came through elaborate tunnels, including one built under the U.S.-Mexico border that originated below a pool table at an estate, Guzmán’s associates said. Drugs were hidden in trucks and trains, amid gallons of cooking oil and concealed in small cans of hot peppers, rolling through official entry points. Some came into the United States via container ships docking at Pacific ports. All of it was destined for sale in cities and towns across America.

One of the cartel’s stash houses, prosecutors said, had a view of the Brooklyn Bridge. Because the cartel’s drugs flowed across the United States, federal prosecutors were able to charge Guzmán in several places and chose to bring him to trial in Brooklyn.

As El Chapo trial opens, attorneys offer contrasting portraits of ‘mythological’ drug lord

Guzmán has been in custody since 2016, when Mexican security forces captured him after a deadly gun battle. The previous year, he had escaped from prison through a nearly mile-long tunnel dug under the shower in his cell.

His arrest, and the prosecution to follow, capped an astonishing saga that authorities say included a sprawling drug empire, corrupt public officials, countless assassinations and visits with celebrities while on the run.

The proceedings were filled with drama: Guzmán’s mistress wept on the stand, his wife at one point coordinated outfits with him in court, and the man who managed the cartel’s computer networks betrayed his old boss in public testimony.

The actor who plays El Chapo in the Netflix series “Narcos: Mexico” came to observe the case, and there were stories of escape, murder, gold-plated AK-47s and money laundering so elaborate and brazen they sound more like a movie plot than real life.

Paranoid boss

Prosecutors cited what they called a “mountain of evidence” in closing arguments Wednesday, the capstone to a 12-week trial that included 14 cooperating witnesses and 1 million intercepted messages between members of his cartel. The cartel’s purpose, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Goldbarg, was to distribute the largest volume of drugs possible throughout the United States and reap billions of dollars in profits.

El Chapo was extradited to the U.S. to face charges

El Chapo is accused of drug trafficking, money laundering and conspiracy to commit murder. He faces life in prison if convicted.

Goldbarg began her closing argument by describing a scene in which El Chapo stood in front of two men who lay by a bonfire, “beaten almost to death but still breathing,” she said. The men had “incensed” El Chapo for working with a rival cartel. He cursed them, shot them and then instructed his henchmen to throw their bodies into the fire.

She went on to describe how over 25 years, El Chapo rose through the ranks to lead his enormously profitable and equally brutal drug cartel.

He traveled in an armored car, built an army to fight his rivals and enemies, and wiretapped his family and close associates, including his wife and many mistresses.

But Guzmán’s paranoia would help bring about his undoing, Goldbarg said. The cartel’s IT technician, Christian Rodriguez, who set up the spyware system for El Chapo to monitor his associates, eventually turned the system over to the FBI. After Guzmán learned that Rodriguez was cooperating with U.S. authorities, Goldbarg said, he ordered his associates to find and kill Rodriguez, who ultimately testified in court.

“Luckily no one knew his last name and never found him,” Goldbarg said of Rodriguez. Guzmán’s associates searched for him on Google and Facebook but to no avail, she told jurors.

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Guzmán’s own voice — which was described as nasally — often was used against him at trial. Prosecutors played recorded telephone calls between Guzmán and his associates discussing drug shipments and bribery schemes.

Goldbarg told jurors that El Chapo, famous for his daring escapes, should finally be made to face his crimes.

“Why didn’t the defendant want to get caught? I submit it’s because he knew he was guilty,” she said. “He’s sitting right there. Do not let him escape responsibility. Hold him accountable for his crimes. Find him guilty on all counts.”

Defense attorneys have slammed the government’s case and its cooperating witnesses, comparing them to “gutter human beings,” and argued that Guzmán is instead a scapegoat. The defendant’s lawyer, Jeffrey Lichtman, told jurors Thursday that the cooperating witnesses are lying to save themselves.

“It’s the cooperators who gave this case life, who gave it breath,” Lichtman said, imploring jurors to dismiss their testimony. “Those witnesses told lies every day of their lives — their miserable, selfish lives,” he said. Calling the cooperators “scum” and “animals,” Lichtman said they were expecting “sweetheart deals” and reduced sentences for their own crimes so that they can “live among you.”

“They’d run over their mothers to convict that man,” Lichtman said, referring to his client.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys finished their closing remarks Thursday afternoon. The jury is set to return Monday morning to begin deliberations.

'Largest and most prolific'

In the courtroom and through court filings, prosecutors have detailed Guzmán’s rise to power as a story of avarice and bloodshed that crossed borders and relied on “brutal force and intimidation.”

How Mexican authorities eventually recaptured El Chapo

His skill at quickly transporting drugs into the United States and getting proceeds to Colombian cartels in the 1980s earned him another nickname — “El Rapido” — as well as more money and power. As his cartel grew, it dispatched drugs to multiple countries while Guzmán sought to corrupt officials throughout “every level” of the Mexican government, federal prosecutors said.

A drug dealer who is testifying for the U.S. alleges Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman once paid a $100 million bribe to former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. (Video: Reuters)

One of Guzmán’s former associates testified that El Chapo bragged about bribing former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto with $100 million, an allegation that has not been proved and that Peña Nieto’s spokesman has called “false and defamatory.”

The Sinaloa cartel — so named for its base along the mountainous western coast of Mexico by the Gulf of California — grew to become what prosecutors called “the world’s largest and most prolific drug trafficking organization.” Guzmán and other cartel leaders “employed ‘sicarios,’ or hit men, who carried out hundreds of acts of violence, including murders, assaults, kidnappings, assassinations and acts of torture” at their direction, prosecutors wrote in a 2016 superseding indictment in the Eastern District of New York.

Guzmán’s underworld legend included two arrests followed by two brazen prison escapes. He was captured in Guatemala in 1993 and then allegedly expanded his drug operation from behind the bars of a maximum-security prison in Mexico. In 2001, he escaped to avoid extradition to the United States; the story goes that he hid in a laundry cart, aided by prison officials.

He was arrested again in 2014. Once again he got away, this time sneaking out through a tunnel leading out of the prison, only to be recaptured in January 2016 by Mexican security forces. A year later, he was extradited to the United States in what a Mexican official described at the time as a “farewell gift” to President Barack Obama before he left office.

El Chapo’s prison break shined a spotlight on Mexico’s corruption woes

During his years on the lam, Guzmán sought shelter behind armed guards and tried to hide his communications from law enforcement. His cartel effectively had an army at the ready, prosecutors say, and Guzmán’s sicarios repeatedly unleashed brutal violence at his orders.

“Guzmán has known no other life than a life of crime and violence,” prosecutors said after he was extradited to the United States.

During the trial, prosecutors laid bare evidence they framed as exposing the beating heart of Guzmán’s operation.

“The American public should have gotten a tremendous education if they paid attention to the Chapo Guzmán trial, because it provides an in-depth look into the ways these cartels operate,” said Mike Vigil, former chief of international operations at the Drug Enforcement Administration, who spent 13 years working in Mexico and along the border. “And the violence and corruption that they generate, and the fact that they generate billions of dollars.”

The trial also offered a look at what Guzmán built, Vigil said: “He created a transnational organization that rivals any major corporation.”

Those who took the stand unspooled details of that organization, claiming that it laundered money through numerous countries, paid massive bribes, specialized in building tunnels for escape and smuggling, and was in possession of numerous rocket-propelled grenades. There also was a healthy dose of jealousy, betrayal and backstabbing, which often ended in murder.

“You have a lot of individuals that worked with Chapo Guzmán, either as his sources of supply or people that worked directly with Chapo Guzmán in the Sinaloa cartel,” Vigil said. “And they’re all saying the same thing about the violence, the things that they did in terms of fighting the government, fighting other cartels. . . . The details of the violence are pretty stunning.”

The trial also gave people a look at Guzmán’s way of life, Vigil said.

“He started to . . . make a lot of mistakes,” Vigil said. “And those mistakes dealt with women.”

Cartel exposed

A meeting with actor Sean Penn and actress Kate del Castillo — which del Castillo, who had apparently drawn the infamous drug lord’s attention, arranged — helped lead authorities to Guzmán. One of Guzmán’s many mistresses testified at the trial, and his 29-year-old wife was a fixture in the courtroom.

Sanford C. Coats, a former U.S. attorney now in private practice in Oklahoma City, said the trial provided insights into things law enforcement probably knew for years but had not been revealed publicly: “I can’t think of another kingpin, if you will, on this level that’s been tried in this country in a long time.”

The level of penetration into Guzmán’s life and operations — including photos, witness testimony and private text messages — was staggering, said John A. Horn, a former U.S. attorney now in private practice.

“There may have been some people expecting a cavalcade of cooperating witnesses, which they had,” said Horn, a longtime federal prosecutor who handled Mexican cartel cases. “But then the other, more traditional evidence, the wiretaps, the recorded calls, the corroboration, the level of corroboration . . . just seeing the day-to-day activity that they were able to capture was, I thought, really remarkable.”

Guzmán’s arrest does not mean that the Sinaloa cartel has taken a major hit; in fact, it continues to thrive in his absence, said Bruce M. Bagley, a professor of international studies at the University of Miami who researches drug cartels. Sinaloa, he said, is more of a hub-and-spoke model, where power is decentralized. It is, he said, the way to best organize a drug cartel.

“You can’t lop off its head,” he said. “The decentralization makes it hard to track down, capture and arrest all of the tentacles, and there’s lots of money flowing through the organization.”

But it is unusual and striking, Horn said, that such a high-level figure has been arrested and that the hood on how the Sinaloa cartel operates has been lifted. Cartels, he said, are known for trying to keep their inner workings invisible.

In many cases, he said, there has been effective electronic surveillance that the public never sees because the target pleads guilty. And cartel leaders seldom face trial, which allows for a full, public accounting of a drug cartel’s operations.

“Seeing the full picture is a very rare occurrence,” Horn said.

Honan is a freelance journalist based in New York. Berman and Zezima reported from Washington.