On Tuesday, February 12, after years of investigations and a 3-month long trial, famed Mexican drug lord Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán was finally found guilty on all 10 charges of his indictment. After over a week of delegations the jury finally revealed its guilty verdict to the court in Brooklyn, New York on Tuesday, likely bringing a sigh of relief to authorities throughout the Americas. 61-year-old El Chapo will receive his official sentence in July, and his defense attorney has already vowed to appeal the conviction; however, it is highly likely that the drug leader will be in prison in the U.S. for the rest of his life given the charges.
The ‘trial of the century’ of Mexico’s notorious drug lord was both fascinating and incredibly dramatic, with some moments playing out like a true episode of Narcos. After several years of investigating and searching for El Chapo, the prosecution presented a very strong case, with 56 total witnesses and hundreds of hours of testimony implicating the drug lord on charges including but not limited to leading a criminal enterprise, transporting narcotics to the U.S., money laundering, and various violent crimes. El Chapo’s attorneys, on the other hand, presented a comparably extremely short and fairly limited defense, much of which was supported only by largely unsubstantiated evidence. Throughout the duration of the trial, the jury of 8 women and 4 men was forced to maintain anonymity and remain partially sequestered to ensure their safety.
After the defense finally rested its case on January 29, the jury began deliberations, which most expected to be a breeze. However, the world—and certainly the prosecution—was shocked to see that the jurors took much longer than anticipated. It ultimately took over a week for the jury to reach a verdict, which involved the thorough review of thousands of pages of witness testimonies. As the jury slowly perused the details of the case throughout the week, prosecuting attorneys became noticeably antsy, and the defense—including El Chapo himself—reportedly seemed rather chipper as the chance of an acquittal seemed within reach.
However, on Tuesday this anticipation finally came to an end as the jurors declared El Chapo’s verdict, which will almost certainly earn him a life sentence in a maximum security prison. Technically, the cartel leader still has outstanding charges in his native Mexico. However, in the event that he does receive a life sentence in the U.S., it is unlikely that the Mexican state will try him in another case to address these separate charges.
El Chapo: A Brief Background
For many in the United States, Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán is known for his famed escape from a Mexican prison in 2015 which broke international headlines. However, while he is certainly known for his incredible ability to evade authorities, he is much more than this. Since the early 90s, El Chapo has been a powerful drug trafficker and member of the Sinaloa cartel, named after the Western Mexican state of Sinaloa where it was originally based. In only a matter of years, he rose through the ranks and became the head of what ultimately became the most powerful drug organization in the world.
At the height of his fame, El Chapo was regularly trafficking exorbitant amounts of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs into the United States and was considered on of the most powerful men in the world. He was known to cooperate with top drug leaders and politicians in Mexico, Colombia, and other countries to facilitate the movement of illicit substances across borders and to minimize authority interference.
Prior to his 2016 arrest and newfound conviction, El Chapo had been already been incarcerated twice, and both times, he managed to escape. His first arrest was for murder and drug possession charges in 1993, when he was still a relatively low-ranking member of the cartel. Following this arrest, Guzmán was staying in a maximum security prison in Jalisco, Mexico, until 2001, when he escaped in a laundry cart, pushed by a prison employee that he had bribed.
From then until 2014, El Chapo evaded the authorities, hiding in and conducting business from various reclusive estates in the mountains in Mexico. During this time, authorities throughout the country were engaged in an extensive manhunt of the drug lord, who by then controlled the increasingly powerful Sinaloa cartel and was one of the wealthiest men in the country (CNN).
El Chapo’s 2001 escape from prison and his apparent ability to evade and/or control the Mexican authorities made him nothing short of a legend in Mexico. He was known for his fearlessness and incredible level of success, and inspired several narcocorridos written by those who idolized him. He was even known to many as a ‘Robin Hood’ character who provided infrastructure and resources for the poor; however, whether he actually did this is unknown.
After narrowly escaping the authorities on several occasions, which he often did using an extensive tunnel system, El Chapo was finally recaptured by the Mexican marines in 2014 in Mazatlán in the state of Sinaloa. However, after this arrest, due to his incredible influence and ability to bribe officials, he escaped again in July 2015, this time from a maximum-security prison in Altiplano. He reportedly escaped through a ventilated mile-long tunnel connected to the prison shower.
As expected, this second escape brought El Chapo unprecedented notoriety in Mexico and throughout the Americas. However, after less than a year Guzmán was captured once again in the city of Los Mochis in 2016, then returned to the same prison from which he had just escaped (CNN). About a year later, in January 2017 a request to have the drug lord extradited to the U.S. was approved, and he was moved to await trial in New York City.
El Chapo’s long-anticipated trial began in November 2018 in Brooklyn, New York. The longest part of the trial was by far the presentation of the prosecution’s case, which took until late January. The state ultimately presented an astonishing 56 witnesses, evidence of the extensive investigation into El Chapo and the Sinaloa cartel that had been conducted over the years. The trial was made particularly interesting by the testimonies of the state’s witnesses, many of whom were convicted felons themselves. Of these 56 state witnesses, 14 were former narcotraffickers themselves who had worked directly with the defendant over the years.
Many of these witnesses confessed to various crimes themselves throughout their testimonies, casually discussing the trafficking of massive amounts of drugs and the gruesome murders that occurred at their and El Chapo’s hands. Among the witnesses were former bodyguards, assistants, mistresses and hitmen who had operated with El Chapo and had plenty of information with which to implicate the drug lord of the charges at hand. Many witnesses agreed to cooperate with the state in exchange for potentially reduced sentences or promises that their family members would receive a path to citizenship in the U.S. (Los Angeles Times).
For the prosecution, the case was quite simple and the evidence at hand, provided by the extensive investigations by U.S. authorities and the various witness testimonies, was more than sufficient to convince the jury of Guzmán’s guilt. Prior to the start of the trial, the prosecution had information to implicate El Chapo of managing the movement of over 150 tons of cocaine to the United States, controlling the production and trafficking of hundreds of tons of other drugs including marijuana, heroin and fentanyl (BBC Mundo). The drug lord himself had also publicly confessed in a 2015 television interview to leading the Sinaloa cartel and bragged of his ability to continue committing crimes and evading authorities. This interview was entered into evidence.
The witness testimonies certainly provided a new element to the prosecution’s case, as they gave an insight into the inner workings of the Sinaloa cartel and the personal life of El Chapo who, until now, has been a fairly elusive figure characterized only by legends and rumors. Through these testimonies, the jury heard stories of brutal murders ordered and committed by the drug lord and various affairs with young women. The state also presented text messages between Guzmán and his wife in which he detailed his narrow escapes from the police, or requested supplies from his reclusive mountainous hideouts.
One significant theme of the case, which was very evident in the witness testimonies, was the extensive corruption of political officials. One of the most startling claims was by former Colombian drug lord Alex Cifuentes Villa, who asserted that El Chapo had paid a bribe of $100 million to then-President Enrique Peña Nieto, which reportedly convinced Peña Nieto to call off a manhunt of the cartel leader (New York Times). Cifuentes Villa actually claimed that Peña Nieto reached out to El Chapo first to request a bribe for this reason, and that they eventually negotiated a deal so that Guzmán would not have to stay in hiding.
The same witness noted that El Chapo had also paid between at least $10 million dollars to the Mexican military to kill members of rivaling cartels. This witness, Cifuentes Villa, is thought to have worked closely with Guzmán while he was in hiding between 2007 and 2013 (New York Times). Other witnesses similarly testified about huge payoffs to Mexican politicians the the police, either in exchange for protection or for violence against rivals. Peña Nieto and other accused officials have denied all of such claims.
After several weeks of exhaustive evidence implicating El Chapo in various crimes, the prosecution finally rested with a case that was rather difficult to follow. At the beginning of the trial, El Chapo’s attorney, Jeffrey Lichtman, began with the defense that the defendant had been framed by corrupt officials in Mexico and the U.S., and that a different cartel member was actually the head of Sinaloa. The defense claimed that Guzmán had been set up in order to protect a man named Ismael Zambada, also known by the nickname ‘El Mayo’ (Animal Politico). El Mayo, 68 years old, was a close partner of El Chapo’s from the 1980s into the early 2000s when Sinaloa reached the peak of its power. He has never been imprisoned himself.
From the beginning, however, this defense was a dubious one, failing to provide significant evidence or to even deny that Guzmán himself was guilty of any of the charges at hand. Many anticipated that the defense would call El Chapo himself to testify—however, this would have been a risky move since it would have subjected the drug lord to cross-examination, which likely would have put him in an even more precarious situation (New York Times). Ultimately, for this reason the defense did not call Guzmán to the stand, but called another witness: an FBI agent.
This U.S. FBI agent was the defense’s only witness, and only testified for thirty minutes on January 29, from 9:38 a.m. to 10:08 a.m. (New York Times). The witness admitted to and detailed obtaining a small piece of evidence that was only, at best, tangentially related to El Chapo. In calling this witness to the stand, it appears that the defense was attempting to attack the credibility of one of the prosecution’s witnesses. This was part of the defense’s larger—and ultimately failed—attempt to discount the evidence against the defendant by denouncing the credibility of key witnesses. This, along with the greater conspiracy that Guzmán had been framed by corrupt officials, summed up most of the drug lord’s defense. With this, the defense rested.
And, as expected, there was little that could be done for the notorious cartel leader. After several years’ worth of evidence and eleven weeks’ worth of incriminating witness testimonies, there was little to be done on behalf of Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, and the jury inevitably sided with the prosecution on all counts.