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

In this courtroom sketch, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, surrounded by U.S. Marshals, waves to his wife Tuesday as he enters the courtroom at Brooklyn Federal Court. (Elizabeth Williams/AP)

NEW YORK — By prosecutors’ account, Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, better known as “El Chapo,” was a man whose ruthlessness was surpassed perhaps only by his efficiency. Starting out selling marijuana in Mexico, Guzmán built a fearsome narcotics empire, revolutionizing the way drugs make their way from Colombia and zealously rooting out anyone whom he perceived to stand in his way.

The way defense attorneys tell it, Guzman, 61, is a scapegoat, whose “mythological” status is essentially a creation of the Mexican, U.S. and other governments looking to distract from corruption in their own ranks involving other, more serious narco-traffickers.

Jurors heard those opening pitches in federal court here in Brooklyn on Tuesday.

Guzman, dressed in a suit and tie, shook each of his attorneys’ hands as he entered the courtroom and gave a slight wave to the judge. Even as prosecutors detailed the cocaine and other drugs they say he sold, and the killings they say he carried out, he sat passively amid his lawyers at a long row of wooden tables, occasionally tilting his ear toward an interpreter.

As alleged Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s trial was set to begin, his wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, arrived at a federal court in Brooklyn Nov. 13. (Video: Reuters)

His staid appearance belied the fact that those who came to watch the proceedings had to put their belongings twice through security scans — and pass two metal detectors and bomb detecting dogs. Guzman has twice escaped from Mexican prisons, and authorities fear his four-month trial might give him an opportunity for mischief.

Guzmán, who faces the possibility of life in prison, has been held in solitary confinement in one of New York City’s most fearsome prisons — the frosted glass in his cell providing light but no view of the outside world. Jurors will be escorted to and from the courthouse by U.S. Marshals — their identities, like some witnesses in the case, kept secret out of fear they could face retaliation. One juror dropped out Tuesday, citing anxiety, and attorneys spent most of the day selecting new alternates. Multiple people expressed fear about serving on the jury.

At the end of the morning session, Guzman appeared to be disoriented and almost followed the last juror out of the courtroom and into the jury room. An attentive marshal put out his arm to stop him, and Guzman was then directed through the proper door and into his holding cell.

How ‘El Chapo’ was finally captured

Prosecutors began their case by laying out Guzman’s decades-longhistory with the drug trade. Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Fels traced how Guzman started by selling marijuana in Mexico, building tunnels under the border with the United States to facilitate his business and establishing relationships with Colombian cartels for his supply. He was soon using all sorts of delivery mechanisms, earning himself the nickname “El Rapido” for the efficiency with which he was able to move cocaine and marijuana.

His success, though, attracted the attention of both rivals and authorities, and in 1993, Guzman fled to Guatemala, where he was arrested and brought back to his own country. Even from prison, Fels said, Guzman was able to run his empire, and in 2001, when he learned the United States might seek to extradite him, he engineered an escape in a prison laundry cart.

A free man throughout the 2000s, he waged bloody wars with rival factions over control of Mexican cities — issuing a “standing order” for his allies to kill those who opposed him, Fels said. He was not afraid to get his hands dirty, Fels said, adding that jurors will hear how Guzman, in one instance, pulled the trigger during a killing, and told those who worked for him to dispose of a body. In another instance, Guzman ordered the murder of a cousin, whom he suspected of cooperating with authorities, Fels said.

Eventually, Guzman was apprehended, but escaped again in 2015 — this time by making his way through a tunnel that workers had dug directly into the shower in his cell from an abandoned home more than a mile away, Fels said.

Undermining Mexico: How ‘El Chapo’ built a criminal empire — and escaped prison — by digging deep

He was recaptured in 2016, after a meeting with actor Sean Penn helped lead authorities to his hiding spot near the coast in northwestern Mexico, but Fels said before his extradition to Brooklyn the following year, “Guzman was planning yet another escape from Mexican custody.”

In a fiery counter to Fels, Jeffrey H. Lichtman, one of Guzman’s defense attorneys, said the notion that Guzman was the world’s most prolific narco-trafficker was “false,” and said the case will show that governments — including “American law enforcement agents” — can be corrupted.

Lichtman took aim at the credibility of prosecutors’ cooperating witnesses — who claim to have worked under Guzman and who are expected to describe the inner workings of his organization — calling them “gutter human beings” and “people will who will make your skin crawl. He also questioned why the government would have given them plea deals that might allow them to walk free.

“It’s because the conviction of Chapo Guzman is the largest prize that this prosecution could ever dream of,” Lichtman said.

Fels said prosecutors would have evidence to support the witnesses inside of Guzman’s organization, including intercepted phone calls and text messages, as well as written letters and drug ledgers. Licthman, whose opening statement is expected to continue Wednesday, did not address that. Rather, he broadly framed Guzman as a victim of a government conspiracy.

Lichtman said a DEA agent wrote in an email that Guzman was “more myth than an actual legend,” and that while Guzman fostered the public narrative about his life, it was largely overhyped. He alleged that Guzman was framed for the 1993 murder of a Catholic cardinal who died in a shootout outside the Guadalajara airport — a crime Fels alleged was carried out by the Mexican government — and that Guzman was afraid corrupt Mexican officials would try to kill him while he was in prison. That, Licthman said, helps explain his escapes.

“He knew he would be killed if he stuck around,” Lichtman said.

Lichtman also accused the Mexican government, including its current and past president, of accepting bribes from another alleged drug lord, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who prosecutors cast as a partner of Guzman’s, and asserted that Zambada’s brother and two sons were cooperating with prosecutors. Lichtman suggested the focus on Guzman might be to distract from Zambada.

“You figure it out,” he said.

A spokesman for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said on Twitter that Lichtman’s allegations were false, as did former president Felipe Calderón.