DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN, Brooklyn —
After nearly three months of testimony and more than a week of deliberations about a vast drug-smuggling conspiracy steeped in violence, a Brooklyn jury convicted the infamous Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman of all charges Tuesday.
The conviction on the first count alone comes with a guaranteed sentence of life in prison.
A jury whose members’ identities were kept secret reached a verdict after deliberating six days in the expansive case, sorting 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.
The jury asked to rehear the testimony of a number of witnesses and asked legal questions in what appeared to be a genuine effort to comprehend 10 weeks of testimony from more than 50 witnesses.
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.”
Guzman was charged with running a continuing criminal enterprise as leader of the cartel, a position federal prosecutors said he used to smuggle at least 200 tons of cocaine into the United States.
Cooperating witnesses described chilling violence Guzman unleashed on rivals and the paranoia of a man who lived constantly on the run. Jurors heard of narrow, naked escapes through tunnels, mistress in tow, and of the electronics he used to spy on his wife and girlfriends.
The defense had argued Guzman was set up to take the fall for another drug kingpin and accused prosecution cooperators of making him a scapegoat for their own crimes.
Guzman was extradited to the United States the day before President Donald Trump’s inauguration after two escapes from maximum-security Mexican prisons.
The prosecution’s case against Guzman, a roughly 5 1/2-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.
Guzman, 61, was notorious for those two escapes in Mexico. In closing arguments, prosecutor Andrea Goldbarg said he was plotting yet another breakout when he was sent in 2017 to the U.S., where he has been in solitary confinement ever since.
The defendant wanted to escape “because he is guilty and he never wanted to be in a position where he would have to answer for his crimes,” Goldbarg said. “He wanted to avoid sitting right there. In front of you.”
The defense claimed Guzman’s role had been exaggerated by cooperating witnesses who are seeking leniency in their own cases. In his closing, defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman assailed the case as a “fantasy” and urged the jury not to believe cooperators who “lie, steal, cheat, deal drugs and kill people” for a living.
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.
“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.
Lichtman said the defense “fought like complete savages” and will appeal the case. “No matter who the defendant is, you still have to fight to the death.”
He said his client was a positive thinker who “doesn’t give up.”
Upon hearing the verdict, Guzman was “as cool as a cucumber,” Lichtman added. “Honest to god, we were more upset than he was.”
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)
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