NEW YORK – A federal jury slammed the door on a final escape bid by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán on Tuesday, convicting the former leader of Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel of operating a continuing criminal enterprise – a verdict that could send him to prison for life.
The panel of eight women and four men, who have served in anonymity amid the tight security around the man notorious for two prison escapes in his native Mexico, delivered the verdict on the sixth day of deliberations.
Guzmán, who did not testify in his own defense, showed no emotion as the verdict was read in Brooklyn federal court.
The trial began more than two months ago. Prosecutors called 56 witnesses, 14 of them alleged former associates of Guzmán cooperating with the government in the hope of gaining leniency for their own crimes.
The defense called one witness.
By turns grisly, comic, and serious, the proceeding unfolded as a ready-for-telenovela look inside the Sinaloa drug cartel that Guzmán is alleged to have helped lead.
Prosecutors said he reaped hundreds of millions of dollars by smuggling and distributing tons of cocaine and heroin to U.S. cities from coast to coast from the late 1980s into the 2000s.
Dubbed “El Rápido” for his speed-to-market distribution network, he allegedly used cars, trucks, trains, planes, fishing boats, submarines, and tunnels under the U.S.-Mexican border to deliver drugs.
Guzmán, his underlings and other Sinaloa cartel members allegedly hid drugs in chile containers, shipments of fish or in carefully concealed compartments.
In a superseding indictment, prosecutors said Guzmán and alleged co-leader Ismael Zambada García created the Sinaloa cartel in the early 2000s from an existing Mexican drug trafficking federation.
The Mexican operation quickly became one of the world’s largest narcotics smuggling organizations, shipping tons of Colombian cocaine into Mexico, then on to the United States and beyond.
Guzmán was first arrested in Guatemala in 1993, extradited to Mexico, convicted of drug trafficking and other charges and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Incarcerated at the Federal Center for Social Rehabilitation No. 2 in Jalisco, he is alleged to have continued to lead the cartel from behind bars. Associates allegedly bribed prison staff to provide him a comfortable lifestyle in prison, including private menus and prostitutes.
Guzmán was in prison when U.S. authorities indicted him on drug trafficking charges. Fearful of extradition to the United States, he bribed his way out of prison in 2001 and spent the next 13 years in hiding.
An international manhunt led authorities in 2014 to the Pacific Coast resort town of Mazatlán, where the Mexican Navy arrested Guzmán with intelligence from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Marshals Service.
But he escaped again the next year, this time from the country’s Altiplano prison, through a nearly mile-long tunnel that henchmen dug to the shower in his cell.
He was arrested for the last time by Mexican federal police in 2016, in the Sinaloa town of Los Mochis, and was extradited to the United States the following year.
Zambada, 71, has not been caught. He is believed to be in Mexico.
Federal prosecutors presented testimony from 14 alleged former Guzmán associates, who testified against him as cooperating government witnesses while seeking leniency for their own self-confessed crimes.
Guzmán’s defense team focused on trying to discredit those witnesses. Defense Attorney Jeffrey Lichtman argued that they lied on the witness stand, and prosecutors failed to flag those lies for jurors. Prosecutors denied Lichtman’s claims.
The alleged insiders 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 described a rift with Guzmán that turned deadly. He testified that he sold a house that Guzmán had purchased under Martínez’s name, and tried to evict one of Guzmán’s mistresses.
Martínez told jurors that the boss tried to have him killed four times. Before the fourth attempt – in which he said grenades were thrown into his jail cell – he said he was treated to an unusual serenade.
Martínez said a mariachi band assembled outside the jail walls to play “Un Puño de Tierra” – “A Fistful of Dirt” – a song he said was Guzmán’s favorite. The corrido, or ballad, advises the listener to live life his intensely, because when death comes, he’ll take nothing with him but dirt.
Martínez said he interpreted the song as a message from Guzmán, .
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, and then on to the United States.
A notorious drug trafficker in his own right, Abadía underwent multiple plastic surgeries that transformed his appearance but failed to head off his capture.
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 alleged Guzmán lieutenant, told jurors he led the effort to spring the boss from Altiplano prison through the secret tunnel in 2015.
López Nuñez testified that Guzmán’s wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, was part of the plot, relaying the boss’ instructions for the tunnel.
Coronel Aispuro. sitting on a courtroom bench during the testimony, displayed no emotion.
Isaias Valdez Rios told jurors that Guzmán interrogated, tortured and killed enemies, and ordered one badly wounded man buried alive.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Goldbarg opened her closing argument to jurors with Valdez’s grisly account of the boss shooting two members of a rival drug gang and then ordering him and other cartel members to toss the bodies into a bonfire.
Lucero Guadalupe Sánchez López, a self-described former Guzmán mistress, told jurors that she helped him buy and distribute multi-kilo loads of marijuana. She also testified that she and her naked lover escaped from a Guzmán safe house in Culiacán as Mexican Marines closed in by entering tunnel hidden beneath a bathtub.
During a break in the trial, Sánchez could be heard sobbing in a waiting area outside the courtroom. Guzmán’s wife appeared to smile.
But if Sánchez’s testimony opened any rift between husband and wife, the couple didn’t show it. When court security marshals brought Guzmán in for the next trial session, he was wearing a wine-red velvet smoking jacket.
Entering the courtroom a moment later, Coronel Aispuro a nearly identical jacket of her own.
The trial also featured an art-meets-real-life moment as evidence presentation wound to a close.
Mexican actor Alejandro Edda, who portrays Guzmán in Netflix’s Narcos: Mexico, visited the courtroom to observe the man himself at the center of the defense table.
A court security officer warned spectators in Edda’s seating area not to gesture, wave or give a thumb’s up in Guzmán’s direction.
The warning didn’t deter Guzmán. He smiled broadly, and waved to Edda.
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