NEW YORK — Accused drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán appeared in a U.S. court here for the first time Friday, pleading not guilty to the charges against him as prosecutors revealed in stunning detail how they intend to build and prove their case.
Guzmán, dressed in dark blue prison garb, said, “Yes, sir,” in Spanish as a judge asked questions about whether he understood the charges against him. He was not handcuffed and seemed subdued during the hearing, which lasted less than 10 minutes. His attorney entered his not-guilty plea.
The appearance came shortly after prosecutors, in a 56-page court filing, asked a judge to order Guzmán detained indefinitely, laying out a history of the drug trade in the Americas and tracing how Guzmán rose to power in it through unparalleled ruthlessness and efficiency. For nearly 30 years, they alleged, Guzmán built an international, multibillion-dollar business, protecting it with a “veritable army, ready to war with competitors and anyone Guzman deemed to be a traitor.”
“These last few decades have shown that Guzmán’s influence knows no bounds,” prosecutors wrote.
Guzmán is charged in federal courts in six states with an array of crimes, including leading a continuing criminal enterprise and importing and distributing narcotics. He was extradited to the United States late Thursday.
At a news conference Friday morning, U.S. Attorney Robert L. Capers called the occasion “a milestone in our pursuit of Chapo Guzmán.” He said Guzmán was facing a possible sentence of life in prison and that prosecutors are also seeking a $14 billion forfeiture.
As part of the extradition process, U.S. officials had to assure their Mexican counterparts that he would not be given the death penalty, Capers said.
Prosecutors wrote that they expect a large number of witnesses to testify against Guzmán, including dozens who have had face-to-face dealings with him and who can describe “every aspect of Guzman’s organization from its inception in the late 1980s through his building of an international empire.” They also said they expect testimony from Colombian cartel leaders and other suppliers, transporters and U.S.-based distributors.
A former member of law enforcement in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, is expected to describe being paid hundreds of dollars a month to release members of Guzmán’s Sinaloa Cartel from custody, to remove roadblocks from drug shipment routes and even to provide armed escorts for drug-laden trucks, prosecutors wrote.
“The caliber of witnesses is strong and great,” Capers said. He said that nearly 40 could testify at a trial that could last many weeks.
Prosecutors wrote that investigators have recovered ledgers from Colombian cartel bosses and suppliers, detailing the financial agreements between Guzmán and suppliers for drug shipments. They also said they had gathered evidence from recorded conversations with Guzmán.
Guzmán’s history is well known, but in an effort to convince a federal judge that he must be held, prosecutors outlined in their filing his rise to power and how it stimulated the drug trade across the Western hemisphere.
The son of a peasant farmer, Guzmán “set himself apart” as a trafficker of cocaine supplied by Colombians in the 1980s for his efficiency, earning himself the nickname “El Rapido” and eventually allowing him to negotiate directly for more pay from his suppliers, prosecutors wrote. He formed relationships with other traffickers and fought for more territory. One bloody battle for control of the Tijuana area of Mexico led to a shootout at an airport in Guadalajara and killed Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, prosecutors wrote.
That killing led to the first nationwide manhunt for Guzmán, and he was apprehended in 1993. But, with the help of his brother, he continued to expand his business from behind bars and escaped from prison in 2001, “purportedly in a laundry cart with the assistance of prison officials whom he had corrupted,” prosecutors wrote.
Guzmán developed an army to protect him and reshaped his Sinaloa Cartel, establishing distribution networks across the United States and diversifying the drugs he sold to include methamphetamine, along with cocaine, heroin and marijuana, prosecutors wrote. He corrupted Mexican officials with bribes and punished those disloyal with violence. He became known for carrying a gold-plated AK-47 and a gold and diamond-encrusted handgun, prosecutors wrote.
At his home in Mexico, Guzmán reportedly enjoys a reputation as a Robin Hood, an admired outlaw who has waged a successful fight against the government. Capers said Guzmán’s story was “not one of a do-gooder” but of a “small cancerous, tumor that metastasized.”
When Guzmán was recaptured in 2014, he “had control of most of the Western hemisphere’s cocaine transportation and distribution network from South America to as far north as Canada,” prosecutors wrote. He escaped again in 2015, sliding down a hole cut in the floor of his cell’s shower stall and fleeing through a mile-long tunnel that had been dug by members of his cartel. He was taken into custody by Mexican police after about six months on the loose, and the U.S. Justice Department pressed for him to be handed over to face charges here.
News images showed that Guzmán arrived in the United States on Thursday night under heavy, armed guard, and there was a similar presence at the courthouse Friday. Prosecutors wrote that although he is a Mexican citizen, he “has members of his organization nearby, ready to assist him to flee the Court’s jurisdiction.”
Authorities, though, said Guzmán would not escape. Angel Melendez, the special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in New York City, said Guzmán himself seemed to recognize he would be facing a different situation on U.S. soil.
“As you looked into his eyes, you could see the surprise, you could see the shock, and to a certain extent, you could actually see the fear,” Melendez said. “I assure you, no tunnel will be built leading to his bathroom.”
Zapotosky reported from Washington.