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Lawyers present opposing portraits of accused drug lord 'El Chapo' as trial begins

Defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman sought to turn the tables at the start of the likely 4-month trial after prosecutors called Joaquin Guzman Loera one of the most prolific traffickers ever.

A lawyer for accused drug kingpin Joaquin “el Chapo” Guzmán Loera said he was the victim of a far-reaching frame-up by U.S. law enforcement and high-up Mexican officials to protect a more powerful drug lord in an explosive opening statement Tuesday at the alleged cocaine trafficker’s trial in Brooklyn federal court.

Defense lawyer Jeffrey Lichtman identified another alleged powerful member of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, Ismail Mayo Zambada, as the leader, and said Mexico’s current and former presidents were part of a corrupt arrangement to protect him by embellishing the legend of “el Chapo” over the last 25 years.

“He was either in prison or on the run . . . literally from 1993 until his extradition in 2017,” Lichtman told jurors. “But the flow of drugs never slowed down. He’s blamed for being the leader when the real leaders are living freely and openly in Mexico. He didn’t run anything. Mayo Zambada did.”

Lichtman sought to turn the tables at the start of the likely four-month trial after prosecutors called Guzmán one of the most prolific traffickers ever, responsible for smuggling tons of cocaine and wielding murder like the gold-plated assault weapon and diamond-studded handgun that were his most prized possessions.

“This case is about drugs, this case is about money, this case is about violence, and this case is about a vast global narco empire,” prosecutor Adam Fels argued. “. . . He used all and every means available to make sure he stayed at the top — corruption, kidnapping, torture and murder.”

Guzmán, 58, was extradited last year from Mexico — where he had burnished his legend by escaping prison twice, in a laundry cart and a mile-long tunnel — to face charges of $14 billion in drug trafficking, money laundering, and running a continuing criminal enterprise through means including multiple murders. He also faces charges in six other jurisdictions.

In court Tuesday, Guzmán looked like a model citizen in a dark suit, white shirt and a bluish tie, gazing at his wife in the second row of the gallery, and waving to U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan when he said hello. But the courthouse was bristling with security, including well-armed local and federal police and and two separate screenings for anyone entering the courtroom.

A jury was picked last week, but the trial was delayed nearly five  hours  Tuesday when two jurors begged off — one cited safety fears, the other loss of income — and it took interviews with 23 new candidates to find two replacements. Due to the late start, Lichtman didn’t finish his opening statement and will resume Wednesday.

Fels weaved familiar elements of Guzmán’s biography into the opening — his cultivation of drugs as a poor teen, his development of border tunnels to smuggle drugs into the U.S. quickly, his two prison escapes — and gave jurors a sense of the scope of his alleged drug operation by describing four cocaine seizures in New York, Ecuador, Panama and at sea that will be part of the trial.

Together, Fels said, the four seizures totaled 41 tons, worth $850 million and “more than a line of cocaine for every single person in the U.S.” But an informant, he said, would testify that “Guzmán boasted that for every one seizure he suffered he had 100 successful shipments.”

He said the prosecution case would include eavesdropping, videos of Guzmán telling his own story and interrogating members of rival drug gangs, and multiple informants to describe the “sicarios” and “pistoleros” who littered places like Juarez and Culaican with bodies.

“Guzmán had his own private army,” Fels said.

Lichtman tried to reshape the trial with some popular movie clichés, casting Guzman as the victim of a misdirected "war on drugs," while a mysterious drug lord pulls strings along with corrupt Mexican and American officials and ambitious prosecutors use lying informants.

Lichtman described Guzmán as a “scapegoat” who was framed in 1993 for the notorious shooting of a Mexican Catholic cardinal in Guadalajara, and had been on the run or in prison ever since while Zambada — whom prosecutors identify as a one-time Guzmán trafficking partner — greased palms and called the shots.

He warned jurors they would learn ugly truths “about how governments behave — that government officials at the highest levels can be bribed, that American law enforcement agents can be crooked,” and questioned why two of Zambada’s sons were in U.S. custody but their father was never apprehended. “They work together when it suits them, Mayo and the U.S.,” he said.

Guzmán, he said, had escaped prisons in Mexico because he faced death if he didn’t, and subsequently had enjoyed and encouraged the larger-than-life persona that grew up around him. That made him a “prize” for prosecutors, Lichtman said, but in fact “Chapo was more myth than an actual legend.”

After the jury left, Cogan said he thought the opening argument had violated a ruling that barred arguments that Guzmán was unfairly or “selectively” prosecuted because of his reputation, and questioned whether Lichtman had admissible evidence of his claims.

He ordered briefs on both issues. Late Tuesday, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and former president Felipe Calderón both denied the allegations of bribes. The trial resumes Wednesday morning.


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