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El Chapo: Trial Awaits You

In 2013, the Chicago Crime Commission designated Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman the city’s newest “Public Enemy Number One.” Despite no evidence that Guzman has ever stepped foot in Chicago, his influence on crime in the city, and throughout North America, is undeniable. With an estimated net worth of several billion dollars, Guzman has been the most influential and successful drug trafficker in the world for over a decade. Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel, smuggling hundreds of thousands of pounds of narcotics from Colombia and through Mexico, has transported more drugs to the United States than any other organization. Known for his violent approach to business and two escapes from maximum-security Mexican prisons, Guzman has been named to the Forbes list of the world’s most powerful people three times for his prominent role in the Latin American drug war which has left over 100,000 people dead.

Guzman was recaptured by Mexican authorities in early January, only six months after his most recent prison escape. After negotiations that included a promise by U.S. authorities to not seek the death penalty, the Mexican government delivered El Chapo in an airplane to New York City on the last full day of Barack Obama’s presidency. Facing 17 charges, Guzman will likely spend his remaining years in the American prison system.

Though the drug lord faces charges in several districts, the Justice Department determined that the Eastern District of New York would be able to present the strongest case against Guzman. The day after arriving in New York, the defendant appeared in a Brooklyn courthouse. Federal prosecutors, led by Robert Capers, presented their sweeping indictment against him. They also released a 56-page document arguing that Guzman should be denied pretrial release. Despite the strong case against him, Guzman pleaded not guilty.

At trial, prosecutors will present ledgers from cartel bosses detailing the financial transactions between Guzman and their organizations, as well as recordings of wiretapped conversations on specific drug deals. Other documentation describes the Cartel’s elaborate system for transporting drugs around the world using trucks, airplanes, and even semi-submersible submarines (capable of moving several tons of cocaine in each shipment). The government will also present evidence recovered from drug and weapons seizures, including thousands of pounds of narcotics and hundreds of assault rifles tied to the cartel.

Most of the evidence, however, will come from the 40 witnesses prosecutors plan to call throughout the trial. According to prosecutors, cooperating cartel leaders will “prove Guzman’s power, corruption and violence within the Sinaloa Cartel,” confirming how he then made  “astonishing illegal profits.” Former members of Mexican law enforcement will testify to accepting large bribes to release arrested cartel members. Law enforcement also provided armed security for cartel transportation and removed roadblocks where runners were transporting drug shipments. Other witnesses will speak to the Cartel’s violent past, providing evidence Guzman was involved in the murders of rivals, government authorities, and law enforcement officials. The most gruesome testimony will describe a blood-covered house specifically used for killings and the sicario hit men allegedly responsible for some of the Sinaloa’s most brutal crimes.

According to a Chicago news report, the key witnesses will be twin brothers Margarito and Pedro Flores, both from Illinois. Over a period of ten years, the brothers distributed two billion dollars worth of Sinaloa cocaine throughout their city. In 2008, however, the brothers betrayed Guzman for fear of arrest in the United States, becoming the highest-ranking men to turn on the cartel. Over the next few years, the Flores brothers recorded conversations with Guzman and other Sinaloa leaders, expected to reveal important details about the cartel’s operations. In exchange for their testimony against Guzman, the Flores brothers received shortened sentences and entered into the government’s Witness Security Program.

Guzman’s sudden extradition on the last day of President Obama’s term came as a surprise to many. Some have interpreted the decision as a farewell gift to the Obama administration, while others see the move as an attempt by Mexico to improve their relationship with the new administration. If the latter is true, Mexican actors failed to reduce tension regarding President Trump’s plans for a border wall. Either way, increased law enforcement cooperation with Mexico is necessary to ensure increased security in both countries. In addition to extraditions (which have increased in recent years), Mexican law enforcement regularly cooperates with the Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and U.S. Marshall Service to stop drug shipments and capture cartel operatives. Through the Mérida Initiative, the U.S. government transfers millions of dollars to Mexico to fight cartels and strengthen border security. As relations between the Mexican government and the Trump administration continue to weaken, the possibility of future cooperation diminishes.

Guzman’s next hearing is scheduled for Friday, February 3. He will appear in New York with his court-appointed attorneys Michael Schneider and Michelle Gelernt. For now, Capers is confident that Guzman will not escape again, saying after the hearing that “What occurred in other countries will not occur here.” Though Guzman’s current location is unknown, authorities initially brought him to the Metropolitan Correctional Facility in Lower Manhattan. One past inmate described the facility as worse than Guantanamo Bay because of the brutal solitary confinement. More than one prisoner has escaped from the facility, which previously housed Bernie Madoff and Ramzi Yousef. Guzman’s location, as he awaits trial, is unknown.

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