Prosecutors to tell epic tale of El Chapo at trial

By on enero 12, 2018
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NEW YORK (New York Times),- When a federal judge in Brooklyn decided this week to postpone the trial of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the Mexican drug lord known as El Chapo, he gave no reason for the delay.

But then, he didn’t have to. Mr. Guzmán’s lawyers gave their own reason in court papers that prompted the decision: The case has become a legal leviathan that has seriously challenged their ability to mount a defense.

For months, it has been obvious that the prosecutors handling the case have been marshaling a mountain of evidence designed to prove that before his extradition last year, Mr. Guzmán was the world’s biggest drug dealer, a celebrity outlaw who operated on four continents and earned nearly $14 billion in his decades-long career atop the Sinaloa drug cartel. The amount of material amassed by the government is staggering. At last count, it included more than 300,000 pages of documents and thousands of secretly recorded conversations — the latter handed over, Mr. Guzmán’s lawyers have claimed, without the benefit of an index.

But this abundant cache of discovery is not the only sign that the trial, which was moved from April to September, will be an enormous undertaking. In their own court filings, prosecutors have hinted that they plan to tell the jury an epic story, one that will encompass not only the defendant’s rise to fame and fortune, but also a sweeping history of the international drug trade.

That story is likely to begin in the early 1980s when Colombian kingpins like Pablo Escobar ran the narcotics industry in New York and Miami. The Colombians controlled what the government described as the “distribution infrastructure” in those cities, but relied on Mexican traffickers skilled in the art of smuggling to move their product north from the jungles of Colombia across the United States border.

Mr. Guzmán, who began his career as a lowly marijuana farmer, set himself apart from his competitors, prosecutors have said, by shipping Colombian cocaine into Texas, Arizona and California with such speed and efficiency that he earned the early nickname “El Rapido.” By the end of the decade, his success encouraged him to expand his territory, a decision, court papers said, that ignited a war with his rivals in the Tijuana drug cartel.

As part of that war, a Mexican official of the Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, was assassinated in 1993 at an airport in Guadalajara, setting off a nationwide manhunt for Mr. Guzmán. Though Mr. Guzmán was eventually caught and served eight years in prison, he was able to maintain — even grow — his empire, prosecutors have said. But then in a move that would soon become his calling card, he escaped from custody in 2001, hidden in the bottom of a laundry cart.

After his escape, prosecutors said, Mr. Guzmán fled to the mountains near Culiacán in his home state of Sinaloa. To thwart recapture, he assembled what the government has called “an army of hundreds of heavily armed body guards“ and set up a sophisticated communications network of encrypted devices and “multiple insulating layers of go-betweens.”

His escape coincided with a crucial transformation in the drug trade. In the early 2000s, new extradition laws were passed in Colombia, putting the country’s traffickers at risk for prosecution in the United States. As a result, the government says, the Colombians abandoned their American distribution routes. Mr. Guzmán stepped into the vacuum, prosecutors said, and soon created his own routes in New York, New Jersey, Texas, Illinois and Georgia.

With profits pouring in at “staggering levels,” prosecutors said, Mr. Guzmán began to extend his operations not only in the United States and Mexico, but also in Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Panama, where he established a series of secret landing strips and started using submarines capable of shipping up to six tons of cocaine. Soon after, the government said, he embedded operatives in South America to guard his supply chain and diversified his business into heroin and marijuana. When he became interested in dealing methamphetamine, he dispatched associates to India and China, according to the government, to search for the ingredients that were used to make the drug.

It was during this period that Mr. Guzmán became the mythic figure he remains today — ”a modern-day Robin Hood,” the government said, beloved by “the downtrodden and extolled in popular songs.” Prosecutors said he surrounded himself with professional assassins who killed and tortured his rivals, and personally carried a gold-plated AK-47 and a diamond-encrusted pistol. According to court papers, he once gave a $1 million bribe — in cash — to Mexican law-enforcement officers to protect a single drug shipment.

But as Mr. Guzmán’s infamy increased, so did the efforts to catch him. In 2014, the Mexican special forces tracked him down to a house in Culiacán, but ultimately lost him when he escaped through a hatch in his bathtub that led to a maze of tunnels he had built inside the sewer system. After a monthslong search, he was captured in Mazatlán and put back into prison. In 2015, however, Mr. Guzmán escaped again — this time, through a mile-long tunnel dug into the shower of his cell. A video made at the time showed him, as prosecutors have put it, “calmly descending a ladder into the tunnel where a motorcycle was waiting.”

The United States attorney’s office in Brooklyn indicted Mr. Guzmán in absentia in 2009, but after he was rearrested in 2016 — found in his undershirt and covered in filth near a Walmart in the city of Los Mochis — they filed a series of additional charges. Those were used to win his extradition from Mexico last January. Though he now resides in a tiny cell in Manhattan’s federal jail, incommunicado and locked in isolation, the government still considers him a threat.

“Guzmán’s worldwide fame has resulted in his appearance in Forbes magazine’s most powerful and wealthy person lists,” prosecutors wrote. “These last few decades have shown that Guzmán’s influence knows no bounds.”

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