By Sylvia Longmire
Columnist, In Homeland Security
After just over a month of prosecutors presenting mountains of evidence and testimony from dozens of witnesses, one of the most high-profile criminal trials in New York’s history is coming to a close. After being accused of, and tried for, 10 criminal counts, including drug trafficking and money laundering, former Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán will wait for a verdict as the jury begins its deliberations on Feb. 4 – a verdict that many say could come in a week or less.
El Chapo’s Escape History
Guzmán’s trial has certainly been a long time coming. After running the largest drug cartel in Mexico for several years, he was captured and imprisoned (the first time) in 1993, then escaped in 2001 in a laundry cart. He remained at large for thirteen years, overseeing unprecedented conflict, violence, and bloodshed as the Sinaloa cartel fought to gain—and maintain—control of profitable drug smuggling corridors. He was captured a second time in 2014, but then escaped again in 2014 using a tunnel built under his prison cell.
El Chapo was captured for the third and final time in January 2016. Despite protracted resistance from his attorneys, he was extradited to the U.S. in January 2017 by the Mexican government with the condition that the death sentence could not be an option. Guzmán was wanted in half a dozen U.S. cities and had indictments in half a dozen more. However, prosecutors felt that the best chance for a guilty verdict and maximum sentence of life in prison could be obtained in New York. Jurors were selected in November 2018, and opening arguments began a week later.
Mexican President’s Alleged Involvement
As expected, the trial and people involved have been surrounded by drama, intrigue, and questions about corruption at the highest levels of the Mexican government. From critiques of Guzmán’s wife Emma Coronel’s couture wardrobe to awkward run-ins between Coronel and Guzmán’s mistress (who thought she and Guzmán were still in a relationship), even gossip magazines had stories to report from the trial.
However, the most incendiary story has arguably been one witness’s claim that he paid former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto (EPN) $100 million to end a manhunt for El Chapo. Furthermore, the witness said that Peña Nieto counteroffered with a demand for $250 million. The former president denied all of the witness’s claims.
El Chapo’s Defense
While U.S. prosecutors have brought forth a virtual avalanche of incriminating documents, photos, videos, and audio recordings, Guzman’s legal team called only one witness—in sharp contrast to the prosecution, which called on testimony from 53 witnesses. The drug lord’s entire defense rests on its attempts to discredit these witnesses, many of whom are incarcerated and will receive reduced sentences in exchange for their testimony. His lawyers are also painting Guzmán as the victim of a campaign by his cartel partners to frame him as the organization’s leader.
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There are no guarantees whenever humans are involved, but given that trial observers are expecting a verdict from the jury in a week or less, a guilty verdict for Guzmán is likely, as well as a life sentence. The question then becomes, what happens after a (hypothetical) guilty verdict?
Most immediately, the court will determine where Guzmán will serve his prison term. Given his history of prison breaks, there’s a good chance he’ll be sent to the Administrative Maximum (ADX) facility in Florence, CO—more commonly known as SuperMax, the “Alcatraz of the Rockies.” If so, ironically one of his fellow inmates would be Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, his former rival as head of the Gulf cartel, who is serving a 25-year sentence after his 2007 extradition.
Homicides Soaring in Mexico
The negative effects of Guzmán’s removal from cartel operations have been felt in Mexico since his capture three years ago. Between internal struggles for control within the Sinaloa cartel to external attempts to acquire Federation territory, homicide rates in Mexico are at an all-time high. This is the Peña Nieto legacy that new President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) inherited only two months ago, and on January 31 the controversial leader declared an end to his country’s war on drugs, announcing that the army would no longer prioritize capturing cartel bosses in favor of improving public safety. Considering this was also EPN’s strategy at the start of his presidency, the odds of the post-El Chapo security situation improving under AMLO are slim.