NEW YORK (AP) — Mexico’s most notorious drug lord, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, was convicted Tuesday of running an industrial-scale smuggling operation after a three-month trial packed with Hollywood-style tales of grisly killings, political payoffs, cocaine hidden in jalapeno cans, jewel-encrusted guns and a naked escape with his mistress through a tunnel.
Guzman listened to a drumbeat of guilty verdicts on drug and conspiracy charges that could put the 61-year-old escape artist behind bars for decades in a maximum-security U.S. prison selected to thwart another one of the breakouts that made him a folk hero in his native country.
A jury whose members’ identities were kept secret as a security measure reached a verdict after deliberating six days in the expansive case. They sorted through what authorities called an “avalanche” of evidence gathered since the late 1980s that Guzman and his murderous Sinaloa drug cartel made billions in profits by smuggling tons of cocaine, heroin, meth and marijuana into the U.S.
As the judge read the verdict, Guzman stared at the jury, and his wife watched the scene, both with resignation in their faces. When the jurors were discharged and Guzman stood to leave the courtroom, the couple traded thumbs-ups.
U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan lauded the jury’s meticulous attention to detail and the “remarkable” approach it took toward deliberations. Cogan said it made him “very proud to be an American.”
Evidence showed drugs poured into the U.S. through secret tunnels or hidden in tanker trucks, concealed in the undercarriage of passenger cars and packed in rail cars passing through legitimate points of entry — suggesting that a border wall wouldn’t be much of a worry.
The prosecution’s case against Guzman, a roughly 5½-foot figure whose nickname translates to “Shorty,” included the testimony of several turncoats and other witnesses. Among them were Guzman’s former Sinaloa lieutenants, a computer encryption expert and a Colombian cocaine supplier who underwent extreme plastic surgery to disguise his appearance.
One Sinaloa insider described Mexican workers getting contact highs while packing cocaine into thousands of jalapeno cans — shipments that totaled 25 to 30 tons of cocaine worth $500 million each year. Another testified how Guzman sometimes acted as his own sicario, or hitman, punishing a Sinaloan who dared to work for another cartel by kidnapping him, beating and shooting him and having his men bury the victim while he was still alive, gasping for air.
The defense case lasted just half an hour. Guzman’s lawyers did not deny his crimes as much as argue he was a fall guy for government witnesses who were more evil than he was.
In closing arguments, defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman urged the jury not to believe government witnesses who “lie, steal, cheat, deal drugs and kill people.”
U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue called the conviction “a victory for the American people who suffered so much” while the defendant poured poison over the borders. He expected Guzman to get life without parole.
“It is a sentence from which there is no escape and no return,” Donoghue told a news conference outside the courthouse, through snow and sleet.
He added: “There are those who say the war on drugs is not worth fighting. Those people are wrong.”
In this courtroom drawing, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, second from right, accompanied by US Marshalls, gestures a "thumbs up" to his wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, as he leaves the courtroom, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019, in New York. The notorious Mexican drug lord was convicted of drug-trafficking charges, Tuesday, Feb. 12 2019, in federal court in New York. Elizabeth Williams via AP)
In this courtroom drawing, Emma Coronel Aispuro, wife of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, sits in the gallery listening, via earphones, to an interpreter reading a verdict in Spanish, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019, after a jury in New York, convicted her husband on drug conspiracy charges. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)
In this courtroom drawing, Emma Coronel Aispuro, right, wife of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, reacts, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019, after a jury in New York, convicted her husband on drug conspiracy charges. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)