Cartel Bribes to Mexican Presidents Alleged at Start of ‘El Chapo’ Trial

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – Kicking off the long-awaited trial Tuesday of drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the defense leveled blockbuster bribery allegations against the current and former presidents of Mexico.

Authorities escort Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, center, from a plane to a waiting caravan of SUVs at Long Island MacArthur Airport, in Ronkonkoma, N.Y., on Jan. 19, 2017. A jury has been picked for the U.S. trial of the Mexican drug lord. Seven women and five men were selected on Nov. 7, 2018, as jurors in the case against Guzman. The trial is set to begin Nov. 13 with opening statements in federal court in Brooklyn. (Photo via U.S. law enforcement)

The bribery charges were part of a multipronged opening statement for Guzman offered this afternoon by attorney Jeffrey Lichtman, who told jurors they would have a hard time crediting the prosecution’s witnesses and that they should buckle up for a mentally challenging trial.

Lichtman, who did not finish his opening arguments before the end of the day Tuesday, said the defense would force the jury to “throw out much of what you were taught to believe about the way government works,” implying and at times outright stating that trafficking-related corruption exists at many levels of law enforcement and government.

While Guzman is believed to have led the brutal Sinaloa cartel for over two decades, Lichtman sought to pin the cartel’s lucrative drug-trafficking exploits on Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, a figure who is No. 2 on the Drug Enforcement Agency’s most-wanted list. Zambada’s son, Vincente Zambada, could testify in Guzman’s trial.

Prosecutor Adam Fels, on the other hand, framed Guzman as the leader of a “fast, global narco-empire” that dealt in “billions of dollars of illegal narcotics” between 1989 and 2014. He said the defendant played a “significant role” in the supply chain of cocaine from South America north to the United States, speeding up the process by using tunnels beneath the U.S.-Mexico border.

While imprisoned in Mexico in the 1990s, Fels said, “not even the four walls of that prison could stop Guzman from running his global empire.”

Later, Fels continued, Guzman turned border city Ciudad Juarez into a war zone by sending “killers to wipe out his rivals” there. A Juarez turf war that began in 2008 claimed over 10,000 lives.

Fels, of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of Florida, also told jurors that the approximately 41 tons of cocaine in the indictment amounted to a line of the drug for everyone in the U.S.

Without substantiating his explosive statements, Lichtman argued later that Mexico’s current and former presidents receive or received “hundreds of millions of dollars” in bribes from “El Mayo” Zambada.

“He pays for it,” Lichtman said. “He bribes the entire government of Mexico, including up to the very top. The current and former presidents of Mexico receive hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes.”

Mexico’s current president is Enrique Peña Nieto; he was preceded by Felipe Calderón. Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected this summer and is set to take office next month. Mexican government spokesperson Eduardo Sanchez Hernandez denied the allegations via Twitter on Tuesday.

“The government of @EPN [Enrique Pena-Nieto] pursued, captured and extradited the criminal Joaquin Guzman Loera. The affirmations attributed to his lawyer are completely false and defamatory.”

A two-time escapee from high-security Mexican prisons, Guzman was convicted on drug charges in Mexico in the 1990s and arraigned last year in Brooklyn on a 17-count superseding indictment.

“[Guzman] is not even alleged to be the biggest drug dealer in Mexico,” Lichtman told the jury, saying his client shouldn’t take the blame for being the alleged leader. “The truth is, he controlled nothing,” Lichtman said. “Mayo Zambada did.”

Lichtman said that while the world was focused on “this mythical El Chapo figure,” Ismael Zambada was running free.

The trial is slated to resume at 9:30 Wednesday morning.

The day was marked by juror woes. Two were excused from the jury today, one because he is self-employed and could not afford the long trial and another because of health problems she said were caused by her selection. She cried privately to U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan when she was chosen for the jury last week.

Both sides and Cogan huddled up for more rounds of voir dire to replace the two alternates who moved to the full jury. Opening arguments did not begin until 3:30, though press and members of the public were lined up outside the courtroom by 7 a.m.

Then at the end of the day, Cogan announced that another juror’s mother-in-law died Monday in the Dominican Republic and that the parties should wait for more news.

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