‘El Chapo’ Guzman is on trial in New York for leading the world’s largest drug trafficking organisation, and his attorneys are saying he’s a ‘scapegoat’ who ‘controlled nothing’

  • Opening arguments in the trial of accused Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman started Tuesday.
  • The prosecution described him as a brutal drug trafficker who built a billion-dollar organisation.
  • The defence cast him as a the victim of a conspiracy mounted by fellow cartel members, the Mexican government, and US authorities, saying he “controlled nothing” and that the real leader of the cartel is still running free.

Opening statements on the first day of accused Mexican cartel chief Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s trial were delayed by six hours, after two jurors were replaced.

But both sides came out swinging in a case expected to last up to four months.

“Money. Drugs. Murder. A vast global narcotics trafficking organisation,” said Assistant US Attorney Adam Fels. “That is what this case is about.”

Guzman, 61, is accused of leading what prosecutors said became “the largest drug trafficking organisation in the world” between 1989 and 2014, smuggling 155 metric tons of cocaine and other drugs and making $US14 billion.

Guzman himself faces 17 criminal counts and, if convicted, a life sentence.

Fels said Guzman got a modest start in the 1970s, selling marijuana in Mexico before starting to build tunnels into the US. The tunnels distinguished Guzman, allowing him to move large quantities of drugs with such speed that he earned a new nickname, “Rapido,” or the quick one.

Guzman was soon sending 10 to 15 planes “stuffed with cocaine” a day from Colombia to Mexico, where the drugs could be smuggled into the US, according to Fels. With business booming, Fels said, Guzman started taking aim at rivals, kicking off several bloody turf wars in the 1990s.

Read also: ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán has pleaded not guilty – here’s the case US prosecutors say they have against him

After the 1993 killing of Roman Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo, who was gunned down in Guadalajara in what is believed to have been an attempt to kill Guzman, the rising trafficker fled to Guatemala, where he was captured, returned to Mexico, and convicted on drug and murder charges.

But he continued to run his cartel for eight years before the first of two successful escapes.

Mexico Sinaloa marijuana drug trafficking Culiacan homicides crime scene
A helicopter arrives to where seven men were killed in a shootout in a marijuana field, south of Sinaloa state capital, Culiacan, July 14, 1999. (AP Photo/El Debate)

Fels told jurors that they would see evidence of enough seized cocaine for each person in the US to try some – “328 million separate, sniffable lines of coke,” New York Times reporter Alan Feuer said on Twitter, adding that prosecutors believed for every shipment they caught, Guzman got another 100 by them.

Fels also said the prosecution would show Guzman paid off Mexico’s military and police and bought assault rifles, grenade launchers, and explosives to fight “war after bloody war.” He said Guzman personally shot two members of a rival cartel and had their bodies burned.

Prosecutors have said they would present a vast amount of evidence: 300,000 pages and at least 117,000 recordings. So much that the defence team has said it hasn’t been able to review it all.

‘In truth he controlled nothing’

Guzman’s defence sought to cast the accused cartel chief as a middling member of the vaunted Sinaloa cartel – a “nobody.”

“He’s blamed for being the leader while the real leaders are living freely and openly in Mexico,” Jeffrey Lichtman, one of Guzman’s lawyers, said on Tuesday.

“In truth he controlled nothing. Mayo Zambada did,” Lichtman said, referring to Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, 70, who is thought to have cofounded the cartel with Guzman and is in hiding in Mexico. Zambada was indicted alongside Guzman but has never been arrested.

Also read: The FBI just put the ‘narco of narcos’ on its 10 Most Wanted list

“While the world focuses on this mythical Chapo figure,” Lichtman said, “the world is not focusing on Mayo Zambada.”

Guzman’s defence team appears to be arguing that Guzman was built up by Zambada and the Mexican government, which used him as a “scapegoat” for the killing of Posadas.

Zambada made Guzman a target through corruption and by working with “crooked” agents from the US Drug Enforcement Administration, Lichtman said, adding that the US only “pretends to want” Zambada.

Government payoffs

Zambada remains free because of “hundreds of millions of dollars” in payoffs that “go up to the very top,” Lichtman said – including to the current president of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, and his predecessor, Felipe Calderon.

Both swiftly denied the allegation.

“The government of [Enrique Peña Nieto] pursued, captured and extradited the criminal Joaquín Guzmán Loera,” a spokesman for the current president said. “The affirmations attributed to his lawyer are completely false and defamatory.”

“The affirmations said to be made by the lawyer of Joaquín ‘el Chapo’ Guzmán are absolutely false and reckless,” Calderon said. “Neither him, nor the Sinaloa cartel nor anyone else made payments to me.”

Peña Nieto leaves office at the end of November. Calderon, elected in 20016, left office at the end of 2012.

Corruption was said to be one of Guzman’s main tactics, and allegations of bribes from narcos are nothing new for Mexican politicians. But the accusations made on Tuesday are as yet unsubstantiated.

Guzman’s lawyers said they would detail them further as other witnesses – many of them convicted cartel figures – testify,according to Feuer.

Lichtman also took aim at the cooperating witnesses, of whom the prosecution wants to call 16. Like the jurors, their identities are being kept secret for their protection.

“Why is the government going so far in this case using these gutter human beings as the evidence?” he said. “It’s because the conviction of Chapo Guzman is the biggest prize this prosecution could ever dream of.”

El Mayo’s son, Vicente Zambada, who pleaded guilty totrafficking conspiracy in Chicago, has agreed to cooperate “in any investigation” as part of his deal and could take the stand as soon as Wednesday.

“They work together when it suits them, Mayo and the US government,” Lichtman said. He told the jury the case would force them to “throw out much of what you were taught to believe about the way government works.”

Judge Brian Cogan excused the jury for the day after the defence presented its theory and asked both sides to provide written briefs on the claims, suggesting the defence’s line of argument will face more scrutiny.

Lichtman’s remarks were cut short because of the delay needed to pick new jurors. Opening arguments did not begin until 3:30 pm, and the day closed with Cogan announcing that another juror’s mother-in-law had died on Monday, telling both sides to wait for more news.