NEW YORK – A federal jury slammed the door on a final escape bid by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera on Tuesday, convicting the former leader of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel of drug trafficking, weapons charges and operating a criminal enterprise – a verdict that means he faces life in prison.
The panel of eight women and four men voted unanimously to find Guzmán guilty on all 10 criminal counts. It was the sixth day of deliberations.
Guzmán, 61, listened intently through a Spanish interpreter as U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan read the guilty counts aloud. He appeared subdued at the findings.
His wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, remained outwardly impassive during the verdict reading. She gave Guzmán a brief thumbs up just before security officers led him out of the courtroom.
The heavy security around the Brooklyn courthouse during the 12-week trial remained in place after the verdict. Soldiers in camouflage armed with assault rifles stood guard in the courthouse entrance as federal officials and defense lawyers went out into freezing rain pellets to discuss the verdict with reporters.
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Cogan set a tentative sentencing date for June 25.
Guzmán’s legal team vowed to pursue an appeal after the sentence is imposed. Defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman said Guzmán remained optimistic – he “was bringing our spirits up,” Lichtman said, instead of the other way around.
Federal officials declared the convictions a victory for the people of the USA and Mexico. The two countries bore the brunt of decades of violence and smuggling that killed thousands and addicted many more.
Prosecutors said the Sinaloa Cartel generated billions of dollars by smuggling tons of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs.
“There are those who say the war on drugs is not worth fighting,” said Richard Donoghue, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. “Those people are wrong.”
Uttam Dhillon, acting director of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said the conviction “demonstrates the dedication and determination of the men and women of the DEA to bring the world’s most notorious and prolific drug trafficker to justice.”
Federal officials declined to answer questions about the verdict because Guzmán remains the subject of criminal charges in Florida, Texas and elsewhere. The officials declined to discuss whether Guzmán would be transferred to other federal districts for prosecution.
Lichtman said he and fellow defense lawyers Eduardo Balarezo and William Purpura faced “literally an avalanche of evidence” presented by federal prosecutors and what he characterized as a widespread perception of Guzmán’s guilt long before the trial began in November.
“I don’t think anybody would doubt that we fought like hell … and left it all on the battlefield for Joaquín Guzmán,” he said.
The defense team said its appeal would focus in part on restrictions the judge imposed on defense cross-examination of government witnesses, and on legal issues surrounding Guzmán’s extradition to the USA for prosecution.
“Do I think it was a fair trial? No,” Lichtman said. “Every witness and every question was a battle.”
Prosecutors called 56 witnesses, 14 of them former associates of Guzmán who cooperated with the government in the hope of gaining leniency for their own crimes.
Guzmán decided not to testify in his own defense. The defense called one witness.
By turns grisly, comic and serious, the proceeding unfolded as a ready-for-telenovela look at Guzmán and the Sinaloa Cartel.
Prosecutors said he reaped hundreds of millions of dollars by smuggling and distributing tons of cocaine and heroin to cities across the USA from the late 1980s into the 2000s.
Dubbed “El Rápido” for his speed-to-market distribution network, he used cars, trucks, trains, planes, fishing boats, submarines and tunnels under the U.S.-Mexican border to deliver drugs.
Guzmán and his underlings hid drugs in chile containers, shipments of fish or in carefully concealed compartments.
In a superseding indictment, prosecutors said Guzmán and alleged co-leader Ismael Zambada García created the Sinaloa Cartel in the early 2000s from a Mexican drug trafficking federation.
The Mexican operation quickly became one of the world’s largest narcotics smuggling organizations, shipping tons of Colombian cocaine first to Mexico, then on to the USA and beyond.
Guzmán’s history of escapes made him something of a folk hero in Mexico. He was first arrested in Guatemala in 1993, extradited to Mexico, convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Incarcerated at the Federal Center for Social Rehabilitation No. 2 in Jalisco, he continued to lead the cartel from behind bars. Associates bribed prison staff to provide him with a comfortable lifestyle in prison, including private menus and prostitutes.
Guzmán was in prison when U.S. authorities indicted him on drug trafficking charges. Fearful of extradition to the USA, he bribed his way out of prison in 2001 and spent the next 13 years in hiding.
An international manhunt led authorities in 2014 to the Pacific Coast resort town of Mazatlán, where the Mexican navy arrested Guzmán, aided by intelligence from the U.S. DEA and the U.S. Marshals Service.
He escaped again the next year, this time from the country’s Altiplano prison, through a nearly mile-long tunnel henchmen dug to the shower in his cell.
He was arrested for the last time by Mexican federal police in 2016 in the Sinaloa town of Los Mochis and extradited to the USA the following year.
Zambada, 71, has not been caught. He may be in Mexico.
During the trial at Brooklyn federal court, Guzmán’s former associates provided some of the most damaging testimony.
His defense team focused most of its trial strategy on trying to discredit those witnesses.
Miguel Angel Martínez told jurors he had been one of Guzmán’s trusted lieutenants until he was arrested in 2008.
Martínez described a rift with Guzmán that turned deadly. He testified that he sold a house that Guzmán had purchased under Martínez’s name and tried to evict one of Guzmán’s mistresses.
Martínez told jurors that the boss tried to have him killed four times. Before the fourth attempt – in which he said grenades were thrown into his jail cell – he said he was treated to an unusual serenade.
Martínez said a mariachi band assembled outside the jail walls to play “Un Puño de Tierra” – “A Fistful of Dirt” – a song he said was Guzmán’s favorite. The corrido, or ballad, advises the listener to live life intensely, because when death comes, he’ll take nothing with him but dirt.
Martínez said he interpreted the song as a message from Guzmán.
Juan Carlos Ramírez Abadía, a former leader of Colombia’s Norte Valle cocaine cartel, said he relied on Guzman and the cartel to smuggle tons of the drug into Mexico and the USA.
Abadía, a notorious drug trafficker in his own right, underwent multiple plastic surgeries that transformed his appearance but failed to head off his capture.
Chicago-born drug trafficker Pedro Flores testified that he and his twin brother, Margarito, ran a distribution system that shipped Guzmán’s cocaine to major U.S. cities.
After working with Guzmán, Flores testified, the brothers feared U.S. and Mexican authorities were closing in. They secretly recorded Guzmán allegedly discussing drug smuggling. Those recordings were played for jurors.
Dámaso López Nuñez, another alleged Guzmán lieutenant, told jurors he led the effort to spring the boss from Altiplano prison through the secret tunnel in 2015.
López Nuñez testified that Guzmán’s wife was part of the plot, relaying the boss’s instructions for the tunnel.
Coronel Aispuro. a regular presence in the courtroom during the 13-week trial, displayed no emotion during that testimony.
Isaias Valdez Rios told jurors that Guzmán interrogated, tortured and killed enemies. Veldez said Guzmán ordered one badly wounded man buried alive.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Goldbarg opened her closing argument to jurors with Valdez’s grisly account of the boss shooting two members of a rival drug gang, then ordering him and other cartel members to toss the bodies into a bonfire.
Lucero Guadalupe Sánchez López, a former Guzmán mistress, told jurors she helped him buy and distribute multi-kilo loads of marijuana.
She testified that she and her naked lover escaped from a Guzmán safe house in Culiacán as Mexican marines closed in by entering a tunnel hidden beneath a bathtub.
During a break in the trial, Sánchez could be heard sobbing in a waiting area outside the courtroom. Guzmán’s wife smiled.
If Sánchez’s testimony opened any rift between husband and wife, the couple didn’t show it. When court security marshals brought Guzmán in for the next trial session, he was wearing a wine-red velvet smoking jacket.
Coronel Aispuro entered the courtroom a moment later in a nearly identical jacket.
The trial featured an art-meets-real-life moment as evidence presentation wound to a close.
Mexican actor Alejandro Edda, who portrays Guzmán in Netflix’s “Narcos: Mexico,” visited the courtroom to observe the man himself at the center of the defense table.
A court security officer warned spectators in Edda’s seating area not to gesture, wave or give a thumbs up in Guzmán’s direction.
The warning didn’t deter Guzmán that day. He smiled broadly and waved to Edda.