Drug baron Joaquin “El Chapo“ Guzman’s defense told his New York trial on Tuesday that his cartel bribed Mexican presidents, painting the absent co-defendant as a ruthless criminal who murdered in cold blood.
Opening statements finally got underway after two jurors were dismissed from the lineup, forcing lawyers and the judge to re-interview potential candidates before the full panel could be sworn in.
One woman was struck after complaining that the trial was causing her health problems, along with a man who said he would not be able to support himself financially during the trial. Two replacements were subsequently found.
Guzman, one of the world’s most notorious criminals, is on trial in New York after twice escaping from prison in Mexico. He faces 11 trafficking, firearms and money laundering charges in what is expected to be a more than a four-month trial.
He is accused of leading the Sinaloa cartel and turning it into the largest criminal organization on the planet. He is considered the world’s largest drug trafficker since the death of Colombia’s Pablo Escobar.
But in opening statements, the defense alleged that Guzman’s co-defendant who remains at large, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, was the real culprit.
“The truth is he (Guzman) controlled nothing, Mayo Zambada did,” Jeffrey Lichtman told the US federal court in Brooklyn.
Zambada, he alleged, bribed everybody, “including the very top, the current president of Mexico and the former,” he added in reference to Mexico’s outgoing President Enrique Pena Nieto and his predecessor, Felipe Calderon.
Both Calderon and Pena Nieto swiftly denied taking any bribes from the Sinaloa cartel, the former calling the allegation “absolutely false and reckless” and the latter saying it was “completely false and defamatory.”
“Mayo can get people arrested and get the Mexican army and police kill who he wants,” Lichtman added.
Instead, Guzman, who has been in solitary confinement in America and whose trial is accompanied by massive security, is a “scapegoat,” the lawyer claimed.
“Why does the Mexican government need a scapegoat? Because they’re making too much money being bribed by the leaders of drug cartels.”
The 12 jurors who will determine the 61-year-old defendant’s guilt or innocence have an enormous and onerous task before them.
During jury selection last week, several potential jurors were dismissed because they feared for their lives, as was another who suffered a panic attack.
Their names will be kept anonymous. They will be partially sequestered, escorted to and from court every day by armed US Marshals.
Prosecutors contend that Guzman spent a quarter of a century smuggling cocaine into the United States.
They say that from 1989 to 2014, the Sinaloa smuggled 340,892 pounds (154,626 kilograms) of cocaine into the United States, as well as heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana, raking in $14 billion.
“Money, drugs, murder; a vast global narcotics trafficking organization. That is what this trial is about and that is what the evidence, in this case, will prove,” Assistant US Attorney Adam Fels told the court.
Guzman, he alleged in his opening statements, had his “own private army” of hundreds of men armed with assault rifles, as well as his own diamond-encrusted pistol branded with his initials and a gold-plated AK-47.
‘In his own words’
US prosecutors have spent years piecing together a case that they hope will end with Guzman spending the rest of his life behind bars in a maximum-security US prison, accumulating more than 300,000 pages and at least 117,000 recordings in evidence against Guzman.
While he is not on trial for murder, They contend that he ordered or committed at least 33 homicides. “You’ll see how Guzman pulls the trigger,” the prosecutor told jurors.
Prosecutors promised to discuss “this global narco empire in his own words” and from witnesses detailing how he would receive $10 million from a single shipment of cocaine.
More than a dozen of the several hundred witnesses expected to testify are in witness protection programs or are already in jail, housed in special wings to protect them from reprisals.
“You’ll have the chance to read his text messages, evidence of drug deals, killings, corruption,” Fels said.
“He was indeed the boss of his organization,” the prosecutor added, saying Guzman “used planes, trains, automobiles, fishing vessels, trucks, even submarines,” to traffic drugs to the United States.
Guzman arrived in New York in January 2017. He twice escaped from prison in Mexico, once hidden in a laundry cart and the second time slipping down a tunnel that reached his prison shower.
In New York, he spends 23 hours a day in his cell. The only visitors he is allowed are his lawyers and daughters, from whom he is separated by thick glass.