Prosecutors launched their opening salvo against accused Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in Brooklyn federal court late Tuesday, portraying him as a grisly villain driven by cash and narcotics to commit untold acts of violence.
“Money. Cash. Murder,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Fels told the jury in his 30-minute opening statement. “A vast global narcotics trafficking empire—that’s what this case is about, and what the evidence will show.”
Guzman stands accused in a 17-count indictment of conspiring to bring more than 200 metric tons, almost a half-million pounds, of cocaine into the United States over nearly three decades as leader of the Sinaloa cartel, long billed by prosecutors as “the largest drug-trafficking organization in the world.”
“And the kingpin?” Fels said rhetorically, gesturing toward Guzman. “That man.”
Despite these allegations, Guzman, who listened attentively through a translator at his side, appeared unperturbed throughout the day’s court proceedings.
When he walked in shortly before 10 a.m., dressed in a navy blue suit, he waved at his doting beauty-queen wife, Emma Coronel, who observed the case from the gallery.
Fels claimed that Guzman moved so much coke that just four of his shipments could provide “more than a line of cocaine for every single person in the United States.”
All the while, Guzman allegedly didn’t shy away from shedding blood to bolster his multibillion-dollar empire, often contracting “sicarios,” or assassins, to slay witnesses and government officials who got in his way.
“He was a hands-on leader,” Fels said of Guzman’s involvement with day-to-day drug operations. “He took out a rifle and shot two men at point-blank range.”
“Then he ordered his workers to dig a hole and burn the bodies,” Fels recounted.
During a turf war between the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels that ran from 2007 to 2011, Guzman also sicced his sicarios on his rivals, leading to scores of beheadings in his mission to “intimidate and eliminate” the competition, prosecutors have previously alleged.
“Juarez turned into a war zone as the bodies piled up on either side,” Fels said.
In his opening statement, Guzman’s lead lawyer, Jeffrey Lichtman, countered that his client was the victim of a vast conspiracy that wracks the top levels of Mexican government and corrodes U.S. law enforcement.
Witnesses who are cooperating against Guzman, 61, have been lying “since they could walk,” Lichtman said.
Prosecutors in the Guzman case, meanwhile, are relying on “witnesses who have killed prosecutors—who have tried to kill presidents of other countries... people who will make your skin crawl when they testify,” Lichtman alleged, calling them “gutter human beings.”
Lichtman downplayed Guzman’s role as a folk hero.
Guzman broke out of prison in the ’90s (his first such escape) because “he knew he would be killed if he stuck around” because “prisoners walked around with guns, with grenades.” But he wound up enjoying “the publicity and the status it afforded him,” contributing to this false myth, Lichtman argued.
Guzman was caught after his second prison break in January 2016 after a sprawling, six-month manhunt in his home country. Officials ultimately extradited him to the U.S. in January 2017, housing him in the notorious 10-South unit in Manhattan’s federal jail thereafter.
Lichtman claimed Guzman is being used as the fall guy for Sinaloa co-leader Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada. The alleged drug lord, 70, has also been indicted. There is a $5 million bounty on his head, but he remains on the run, Lichtman pointed out.
“He bribed the entire government of Mexico—including the current president of Mexico,” Lichtman argued in an attempt to explain Zambada’s freedom, also saying “the current and former president of Mexico received hundreds of millions in bribes from Mayo…”
One former president of Mexico, Felipe Calderon, who served between 2006 and 2012, took to Twitter to deny taking any bribes. “The claims made by Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán’s lawyer are absolutely false and reckless. Neither he nor the Sinaloa cartel nor anyone else made payments to me,” Calderon tweeted in Spanish.
While opening statements ultimately did take place (Lichtman’s will continue Wednesday morning), it initially looked as if Guzman’s trial was poised to descend into chaos.
Right after Guzman walked into Judge Brian Cogan’s courtroom, the federal judge told lawyers that a juror had reached out with bad news.
“She has delivered to me a handwritten letter that details medical issues that have been brought about by her selection,” Cogan said, later pointing out that the same juror “has been anxious and upset since selection.”
“It would just result in a breakdown and really, it’s just not necessary,” Cogan said.
Another juror who had been selected last week, who is self-employed, also notified the judge that he can’t go four months without income.
Prosecutors, Guzman’s team, and Cogan agreed to select two more alternates to serve as backups for the 12-member panel, as both of the concerned jurors wound up getting dismissed.
Selecting just two alternates, however, took five hours.
All the while, journalists covering the proceedings were effectively sequestered in both the courtroom and overflow room. Phone use was not permitted on the floor. Officials told them that if they were even to leave for a bathroom break that they would lose their seats, for which many lined up starting at 6 a.m.
After more than three hours of negotiations—including telling officials preventing bathroom access may violate regulations that protect disabled individuals—reporters were permitted to leave, one-by-one, for a bathroom break. While others were allowed to leave for lunch without losing their seats, journalists were told they could neither leave—nor eat any food they had brought with them in the courtroom—or risk losing their seats. (The Daily Beast was told that El Chapo did get to eat his lunch. It’s unclear whether he ate the bologna sandwiches typically served to those in federal jail.)
The ever-dutiful Coronel, who sported a silky black pantsuit that hugged her hourglass figure, complained to Guzman’s lawyers that he didn’t look his best.
“That’s not our biggest problem,” Eduardo Balarezo, another lawyer on Guzman’s team, told Coronel. “Tomorrow, he’ll be more handsome.”