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'El Chapo' trial to begin in federal court Tuesday

“El Chapo” faces charges of trafficking $14 billion of drugs into the United States.

Joaquin Guzman Loera, known as

Joaquin Guzman Loera, known as "El Chapo," faced trial on drug trafficking Tuesday. Photo Credit: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via Getty Images/Charles Reed

As a teen, he grew marijuana and poppies to make money, like a paper route. Before he was “El Chapo” he was “El Rapido,” known as an innovator using secret border tunnels to speed drugs into the United States. He once allegedly plotted to ship 7 tons of cocaine in jalapeno cans. And he twice broke out of prison in Mexico.

In a drug trial of almost unprecedented scope starting Tuesday in Brooklyn federal court, alleged drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera will face charges of trafficking $14 billion of drugs into the United States. But prosecutors have signaled they hope to prove a far broader set of allegations — part biography, part history — during a courtroom saga expected to last four months.

Along with an inside look at Guzman's evolution into a criminal legend, and details of the Sinaloa cartel he allegedly controlled and the drug wars that shook Mexico for three decades, the government has promised to link him personally to “Scarface”-like violence with a video of him interrogating a bound victim, and chilling first-ever informant testimony about his feuds with rival gangs like Los Zetas.

“Around 2006, the defendant’s workers brought two suspected Zetas members to the defendant,” prosecutors described one episode. “After having lunch, the defendant interrogated them, had them beaten and then shot them both in the head with a long gun. The defendant then ordered his workers to dig a hole in the ground, throw the bodies in the hole and light the bodies on fire.”

Altogether, the prosecutors have planned to put so much evidence of violence and killings before the jury that they have drawn warnings from U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan to trim down their claims of more than three-dozen murder conspiracies.

“This is a drug case that includes murder, and I am not going to let it turn into a murder conspiracy with drugs,” the judge said at a recent hearing. “... To make your point — that murder was an important part of this conspiracy — do you need 38?”

Guzman, 58, was extradited to the United States from Mexico last year to face trial in Brooklyn, but he also faces charges in six other jurisdictions, from New Hampshire and Manhattan to Arizona and California.

Stocky and short — “El Chapo” means “shorty” — he has a direct, sometimes baleful stare in court appearances. Since his arrival, Guzman has been held in high-security isolation in the Metropolitan Correction Center, the federal jail in Manhattan, cut off from contact with family to keep him from sending messages.

Guzman's isolation has been a source of persistent complaints from defense lawyers, who say he has suffered psychologically and been impeded in preparing his defense, and is hardly likely to pull off the escapes he did in Mexico — first in a laundry cart, and then through a tunnel — from a high-rise jail in Manhattan.

But prosecutors contend two sons are still running his drug organization, with "massive financial resources" they flaunt on social media and which reach beyond Mexico and Latin America. And Cogan last week barred even a last-minute hug in court Tuesday with Guzman’s wife, ex-beauty queen Emma Coronel Aispuro, because he might take the opportunity to pass threats to informants expected to testify.

The courthouse itself is expected to be bristling with security when trial begins on Tuesday. Cogan has impaneled an anonymous jury because of safety concerns, and prohibited the public from attending jury selection last week. The building was guarded by an array of heavily armed federal and city police outside, and bomb-sniffing Labradors inside.

In court filings, the government describes Guzman as the “most notorious drug trafficker in the world” and his cartel “the world’s largest and most prolific drug trafficking operation,” alleging that over 25 years they have been responsible for smuggling in 200,000 kilograms of cocaine and have tentacles in both distribution networks in the United States and drug production in South America.

Along with drug and money laundering charges, Guzman is accused of running a "Continuing Criminal Enterprise" — a charge prosecutors say gives them latitude to introduce everything from a video interview in which he described cultivating drugs as a boy, as background, to descriptions of tunnels accessed through a bathtub on a hydraulic lift he allegedly used to escape capture in 2014.

In addition to evidence about drug shipments seized at sea and in New York and other locations, their case is expected to include extensive phone and electronic intercepts, satellite photos, drug ledgers, videotapes and Guzman’s own interviews — admitting involvement with drugs — and statements to law enforcement.

But its centerpiece, according to prosecutors, will be informants — at least 16, court papers say — “who operated at every level of defendant’s organization and have knowledge of the inner workings of the cartel.”

Prosecutors expect those witnesses to lay out Guzman’s rise to prominence by using sophisticated tunnels to move drugs across the border faster than other smugglers, his formation of alliances with some traffickers and wars with others, extensive corruption of Mexican officials, and the spiral of violence carried out on his orders.

The evidence, the government says, will tie him to notorious shootouts in 1992 and 1993 in which six were killed at a Puerto Vallarta disco, a Catholic cardinal who was shot at a Guadalajara airport, and the battles that at one time made Juarez the "murder capital of the world."

“Shootouts were frequent, violence was rampant, and finding dead bodies strewn across the city was a regular occurrence,” the government said in a preview of testimony. “The sicarios representing the defendant’s organization were well organized and well equipped. When they did not kill their rivals in shootouts, they abducted and interrogated them.”

With Cogan’s permission, the prosecution team, led by veteran drug prosecutor Andrea Goldfarb, has kept the identity of the witnesses a closely guarded secret — sealing court filings and even keeping their identities from the defense until the trial neared for fear they might be targeted in hiding.

That has been a sore point for the defense team, headed by Eduardo Balarezo, a Washington, D.C., defense lawyer with a track record that includes major drug cases, and Jeffrey Lichtman, the Manhattan lawyer who once represented John Gotti, the son of the legendary Gambino family boss of the same name.

The defense lawyers have yet to describe their full strategy at trial. Prosecutors want to block "self serving" statements Guzman has made about himself — such as a video provided to actor Sean Penn in which he said drugs were the "only way to survive" his impoverished childhood — but the defense still hopes to put in some good acts, such as aid to the poor, to combat the government's profile.

"The government will seek to paint Mr. Guzmán ... as a purely evil criminal automaton," they said in one filing. "The defense reserves a right to counter that prejudicial image."

The defense team has also said cross-examination of the informants — which could call into question Guzman's level of control and authority in the cartel — will be critical, and has complained repeatedly that their hands have been tied by delays in naming cooperators and providing records of their debriefings, combined with the limits security restrictions put on Guzman's ability to help.

“The fact that the government has charged him with multiple serious crimes, that his nickname is ‘el Chapo,’ or that many cooperators are testifying against him in order to reduce their sentences, does not diminish Mr. Guzmán’s right to a fair trial and due process,” they said in one recent filing.

They also appeared to predict doom for their client, adding, “The manner in which the government has conducted itself will result in a show trial where guilt is a foregone conclusion.”

CASE AT A GLANCE

Defendant: Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, alleged head of what the government says is the “world’s largest and most prolific drug trafficking operation.”

Charges: Accused of trafficking $14 billion in drugs to the U.S., money laundering, and running a criminal enterprise involving multiple murder conspiracies.

Trial: Starts Tuesday at federal court in Manhattan before U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan

Security: Expected to be very high. The judge has impaneled an anonymous jury and the building is heavily guarded, complete with bomb-sniffing dogs.

Legal issues: The judge must decide how far afield the prosecution can go in conveying the breadth of Guzman’s allegedly extensive criminal activity. The defense says Guzman deserves a fair trial, no matter how many crimes he is charged with, and that the government has painted him unfairly.

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