Jury to start deliberating fate of drug lord

NEW YORK – A federal jury in Brooklyn will soon decide the fate of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the suspected Mexican drug lord who is accused of smuggling tons of cocaine and other narcotics into the United States.

Having heard hearing testimony from 57 witnesses – 56 called by prosecutors, one by Guzmán’s defense team – jurors on Monday will receive instructions on the law from U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan.

Prosecutors have asked the judge to add instructions after the confrontational closing statement by defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman on Thursday.

Lichtman repeatedly suggested that government lawyers suborned perjury by alleged former Guzmán associates who testified against their former boss while seeking leniency for their own crimes.

“They were given the world by this government and then they lied their butts off,” Lichtman told the jury.

Prosecutors asked the judge to tell jurors that Lichtman’s comments were improper and to explain that “the government is not on trial.” They asked for similar jury instructions regarding Lichtman’s arguments that the government singled out Guzmán for prosecution and hid evidence that might have helped his defense.

Lichtman argued that the arguments about selective prosecution were “within the bounds of what the court instructed would be acceptable. He also asserted that certain evidence was “destroyed rather than provided to the defense.

Cogan is expected to rule on the request before he gives jurors legal instructions on Monday. After the instructions, the jury of seven women and five men will begin deliberations.

They’ll have lots to consider.

The jurors must weigh the evidence on 10 criminal counts, including the top charge of engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise. If found guilty on that count, Guzmán, 61, could be sentenced to life in prison.

The alleged former leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel is also charged with importing and distributing cocaine, firearms violations and conspiracy to launder money from narcotics trafficking.

Here’s a closer look:  

The charges

A superseding indictment charges that Guzmán and Ismael Zambada Garcia created the Sinaloa cartel in the early 2000s from an existing drug trafficking federation.

The new operation became one of the world’s largest narcotics smuggling organizations, prosecutors say, shipping tons of Colombian cocaine to the United States with other drugs. Hundreds of millions of dollars in illegal proceeds were smuggled back to Mexico and laundered through front companies, they say.

The operation used cars, trucks, trains, planes, fishing boats, submarines and secret tunnels at the U.S.-Mexican border to speed the drugs to major U.S. cities from coast to coast, prosecutors say.

Guzmán, known for outperforming drug trafficking rivals, was dubbed “El Rapido,” prosecutors say. He was captured in Mexico in 2016 and extradited to the United States the next year. Zambada was never caught; he’s believed to be in Mexico.

The evidence

Prosecutors brought some of the tools of Guzmán’s alleged trade into the courtroom for closing statements on Wednesday. Three AK-47 assault rifles lay atop the prosecution table. Bricks of cocaine were packed into Drug Enforcement Administration boxes on the courtroom floor.

During deliberations, the jury can ask for replays of audio and video recordings, as well as jailhouse letters, exhibits that allegedly show Guzmán discussing cocaine shipments, executions and other crimes.

The witnesses

A parade of 14 cooperating witnesses provided some of the most damaging testimony against the man they identified as their former boss.

Miguel Angel Martínez told jurors he had been one of Guzmán’s trusted lieutenants until he was arrested in 2008.

Martínez, strapped for cash, sold a house that the boss had purchased under Martínez’s name. Unfortunately for the lieutenant, the sale forced the eviction of one of Guzmán’s mistresses.

Martínez told jurors that the boss tried to have him killed four times. He said the fourth attempt, in which he said grenades were thrown into his jail cell, was preceded by an unusual serenade.

A mariachi band assembled outside the jail walls and repeatedly played “Un Puño de Tierra” – “A Fistful of Dirt.” Martínez identified the song as Guzmán’s favorite. The lyrics advise the listener to live his life intensely, because when he dies, he’ll take nothing but dirt.

The song was a message from Guzmán, Martínez testified.

Juan Carlos Ramírez Abadía, a former leader of Colombia’s Norte Valle cocaine cartel, testified that he relied on Guzman and the cartel to smuggle tons of the drug into Mexico, then on to the United States.

Chicago-born drug trafficker Pedro Flores testified that he and his twin brother, Margarito, ran a U.S. distribution system that shipped Guzmán-delivered cocaine to major U.S. cities. 

After working with the Mexican boss, Flores testified, they feared U.S. and Mexican authorities were closing in on them. They secretly recorded Guzmán allegedly discussing drug smuggling. Those recordings were played for jurors.

Dámaso López Nuñez, another suspected Guzmán lieutenant, told jurors he led the effort to spring the boss from Mexico’s Altiplano prison through a secret underground tunnel in 2015.

Guzmán’s wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, was part of the plot, he testified, relaying the boss’ instructions for the tunnel. Coronel Aispuro watched and listened to López Nuñez’s testimony from a courtroom bench.

Isaias Valdez Rios told jurors Guzmán interrogated, tortured and killed enemies and ordered one wounded man buried alive.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Goldbarg opened her closing argument to jurors with Valdez’s account of the boss shooting two members of a rival drug gang and ordering their bodies to be tossed into a bonfire.  

Follow USA TODAY reporter Kevin McCoy on Twitter: @kmccoynyc

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