Defense attorneys for alleged drug kingpin and prison escape artist Joaquin Guzmán Loera, better known as El Chapo, and prosecutors presented opening arguments on Tuesday in the drug conspiracy trial against Guzmán in a federal courthouse in Brooklyn that is under beefed-up security.
The team of prosecutors from U.S. attorneys offices in New York and Florida portrayed Guzmán as the ruthless and hands-on leader of a vast drug enterprise in Mexico that got its start as a go-between for drug producers in Central and South America and distributors in major cities in the United States that scaled up so quickly over the past few decades that at one point Guzmán himself had some difficulty keeping track of shipments.
But Jeffrey Lichtman, a prominent criminal defense attorney who successfully represented John A. Gotti, the son of Gambino crime family boss John J. Gotti, argued that the government’s case is built on the testimony of untrustworthy and criminal witnesses “who will make your skin crawl” and sought to portray his client as the victim of a conspiracy between bosses now running the Sinaloa Cartel and government and law enforcement officials in both the United States and Mexico.
“While he’s been in prison in America, the flow of drugs hasn’t stopped,” Lichtman said of Guzmán. “Nothing’s changed. Business as usual.”
Guzmán faces 17 counts for allegedly running the cartel between 1989 and 2014, in which it made billions by moving massive amounts of heroin, cocaine and marijuana into the U.S. by means that included underground tunnels and submarines.
Prosecutors allege Guzmán and Ismael Zambada García, who authorities say is currently running the cartel and who is at large in Mexico, used hit men to murder rival drug lords and traffickers within their own organization who they suspected of cooperating with the government.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Fels of the Southern District of Florida also said that prosecutors will present evidence that Guzmán, who he said was fond of brandishing a diamond-encrusted handgun and a gold-plated AK-47, personally carried out a murder and will show jurors a video of Guzmán violently interrogating a rival.
“Money, drugs, murder. A vast global narcotics trafficking organization,” Fels said. “This is what this case is about. This is what the evidence in the case will prove.”
Fels also noted that Guzmán is known for making breathtaking escapes from prison, such as his 2015 escape from a Mexican prison via a milelong tunnel.
Guzmán, who appeared in court wearing a dark suit with a blue-and-gray plaid tie, faces a maximum sentence of life in prison, and the government seeks $14 billion in forfeiture.
The prosecution also includes Andrea Goldbarg, Hiral Mehta, Patricia Notopoulos, Gina Parlovecchio and Michael Robotti from the Eastern District of New York.
In additional to Lichtman, Guzmán’s defense team includes Eduardo Balarezo, who represented convicted drug lord Alfredo Beltrán Leyva; Michael Lambert Mariel Colon MIro of the Law Offices of Michael Lambert; and William Purpura of the Law Offices of Purpura & Purpura.
Prior to the presentments, much of the day was spent finding replacements for two jurors who indicated that they would not be able to sit through the entirety of the trial, which is expected to last 16 weeks. One juror said he is self-employed and would end up losing money serving on the jury, while another said she has been feeling anxious since she was picked for the jury.
The jury was sworn in after 3 p.m.
Judge Brian Cogan of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, who presides over the case, has ordered several measures to increase safety in and around the trial: For one, the jurors are anonymous and partially sequestered.
There is an increased law enforcement presence at the Eastern District courthouse from several federal law enforcement agencies and the New York City Police Department for the trial, and Homeland Security agents are patrolling the area with bomb-sniffing dogs.