El Chapo Trial Thin on Causes & Effects of Illicit Drug Trade

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – It’s easy to get caught up in the glitz and legend that surround Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

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)

His Brooklyn trial has supplied boatloads of Hollywood-level drama – and a bit of Hollywood itself. Since mid-November, a steady procession of Guzman’s alleged former colleagues, most of them in prison scrubs, have taken the witness stand and regaled the anonymous jury with tales of their glory days: gold- and diamond-plated guns, extramarital affairs, a naked tunnel escape, secret airstrips dug into the sides of mountains, cocaine hidden in plastic bananas and chili cans, target practice with a bazooka. 

At the start of the trial’s 11th week and after 56 witnesses, the prosecution rested its case Monday. In the gallery sat Mexican actor Alejandro Edda, who plays Guzman in the Netflix series “Narcos.” 

Inside the fortress of a courthouse, behind police barricades, two metal detectors and explosive-sniffing dogs, details of the Western Hemisphere’s drug trade have unfurled at a kind of surreal remove from reality.

Guzman, a reputed former leader of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, has pleaded innocence to charges of drug trafficking, conspiracy and money laundering. Even if he is not found guilty, the cooperating witnesses have said they are, and testified to actions leaving devastation in their wake from Medellin to Queens. But the human face on the trial is Guzman’s, not that of a poor marijuana farmer in Sinaloa, a murdered civilian in Ciudad Juarez or a cocaine addict in New York City. 

Some experts say that as occupants of the world’s largest consumer of illicit drugs, U.S. residents watching Guzman’s trial should feel some sense of responsibility for the sweeping violence the drug trade has left in its wake.

“When people buy diamonds, and then they find out they are connected to large-scale warfare in Africa, they should feel bad,” said Alejandro Hope, a Mexican security analyst who has been following the trial.

“There is no fair-trade cocaine,” Hope said. “There’s no violence-proof cocaine. Every line people were sniffing was connected, somehow, to an act of violence somewhere.”

Alleged Sinoloa Cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is pictured left here in this photo entered as evidence at trial.

Amid the deluge of evidence in Guzman’s trial, there has been precious little discussion of those countless acts of violence. But authorities estimate that well over 200,000 people have been killed or disappeared in Mexico since the government declared war on organized crime groups in 2006. 

Steven Dudley, co-director of the investigative nonprofit InSight Crime and a senior fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American Studies, expressed disappointment with the narrow scope of allowed testimony during the prosecution’s case. 

“It is really dispiriting to see a couple of things play out,” Dudley said in a phone interview. “One is that, typical of much of the justice system, there is no sense of context. You get no sense that there is a whole series of things that leads to the creation of this giant drug trafficking behemoth.” 

One of those things is widespread corruption, about which there has been some brief, bombshell testimony. But U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan has largely blocked corruption allegations in an effort to keep the trial focused on the defendant’s alleged drug shipments.

Dudley said the U.S. judicial system does not have an obligation to educate the public. But he noted that over the past two decades of drug trafficking cases, circumstances have rarely allowed for discussion of “large numbers of dead in the countries from which these guys came.” 

Lucy Sosa, a veteran journalist in Ciudad Juarez, pointed to numbers from the state attorney general’s office that total a mind-boggling 9,428 homicides in the city between 2007 and 2011, when the Sinaloa Cartel fought the Juarez Cartel for control of the city’s “plaza,” or drug trafficking route. In comparison, El Paso just across the border saw less than 70 murders in the same time period. 

“From 2007 to 2011 we faced unprecedented scenes of violence that forced us to live in terror,” Sosa wrote in a text message in Spanish, “with no one to trust because the police corporations responsible for giving us security had been totally infiltrated by organized crime.”

With 29,000 murders, 2017 was one of the most violent years in Mexico’s recent history. The destruction is reportedly due in part to the power vacuum left by Guzman’s capture.

But both Hope and Dudley said putting an exact number on deaths related to the drug war is nearly impossible.

The cooperators who have taken the stand this winter against their reputed former boss largely lived high on the drug trafficking food chain and did not testify to directly participating in violence. Instead, they ordered it. 

In this combination photo, the Colombian drug lord Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia is pictured before and after an extreme plastic-surgery makeover that he underwent to hide his identity. Ramirez testified Monday in Brooklyn, New York, at trial of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. (Credit: U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York)

Juan Carlos “Chupeta” Ramirez, who testified to ordering at least 150 murders, was a billionaire Colombian cocaine supplier. Chicago-born Pedro Flores worked as a successful distributor with his twin brother, Margarito, before they flipped. As a cooperator, Pedro sold out his mostly black customer base, who are now serving longer sentences than he likely will. Vicente Zambada is the son of Guzman’s alleged partner, the DEA fugitive and suspected Sinaloa Cartel leader Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada. 

The younger Zambada, who’d ranked above the worker-level cartel members who did most of the fighting, told jurors about the turf war in Juarez from his remote perspective, via wiretapping equipment he had bought from an army general for $750,000. Zambada ticked off names and types of weapons. He explained who attended what meetings and where they held them.

After the first peace meeting, Zambada said, the parties had agreed to a ceasefire. But it didn’t hold. 

“The problems continued in Juarez,” Zambada said, without elaboration. Those “problems” included the murders of an estimated 3,000 people in 2010 alone.

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The Sinaloa Cartel has trafficked cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines and now fentanyl, drugs that have killed tens of thousands of Americans. The group is estimated to control from 30 to 60 percent of the cocaine sold in the U.S. and “maintains the most expansive footprint in the United States,” according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.  

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, U.S. overdose deaths related to cocaine have ranged from about 3,500 to 7,500 per year over the past two decades, excluding a jump to over 10,000 in 2016 and nearly 14,000 in 2017, explained in part by the rise in combinations of fentanyl with the drug. That’s a total of nearly 112,000 cocaine-related overdose deaths since 1999, a decade after Guzman’s indictment says he got involved. 

Guzman is accused of helping move over 40 tons of cocaine – which, as prosecutor Adam Fels explained during his opening argument in mid-November, is enough for 328 million lines.

“The best thing in the world,” Miguel Angel Martinez, a self-described former manager of the Sinaloa Cartel, said of the business during the 1990s. “Because we formed part of the cocaine boom.”

One such “boom” at that time was the crack epidemic, which began in the 1980s and ravaged poor American communities, particularly black urban populations. Hope said it “stands to reason” that at least a percentage of cocaine trafficked to the U.S. by the Sinaloa Cartel was turned into crack cocaine, a cheaper, smokable version of the drug.

Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s private jets. (Photo via U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York)

“When I met Mr. Guzman, he didn’t have a jet,” Martinez told the Chapo jury. But by the 1990s, he testified, the man had four jets, “a ranch in every single state,” and a house on every major beach, including one $10 million abode in Acapulco complete with a yacht dubbed “Chapito.” 

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Witnesses often used a kind of sterile code to describe less savory elements of the drug trafficking business. They ticked off weights of drug shipments, types of guns, names of meeting participants, meeting locations, amounts of money they received and spent. 

“Problems” were a turf war with thousands of civilian casualties. “Elimination” or “confrontation” could mean murder; an “interview” is torture; “arrangements” were bribes. Cooperators explained the meanings at the request of the lawyers, but the vocabulary often served to further separate the trial from reality. 

At a pretrial court proceeding this past October, Cogan blocked prosecutors from introducing over 30 murder conspiracies in their case, pointing out it was not a murder trial. So it was not until the final days of the prosecution’s case that any witness testified to Guzman personally killing anyone. In a vivid exception to the generally impersonal testimony, pilot Isaias Valdez Rios’ description of Guzman’s alleged torture and murder of his rivals was graphic and lengthy, prompting Cogan to ask for “less narrative.”

Alejandro Edda, an actor who plays Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, on the Netflix series “Narcos” speaks to reporters on Jan. 28, 2019, outside the New York federal courthouse where Guzman is on trial. Following weeks of evidence from the government, attorneys for Guzman will begin presenting their defense on Jan. 29. (AMANDA OTTAWAY, Courthouse News Service)

During the course of the trial, the 18 anonymous jurors saw both actual cocaine and a small arsenal of weapons rolled into the courtroom. But overall, the Guzman trial has not served either as a referendum on the drug war or a formal documentation of drug violence in the Americas. 

Dudley said the focus on the “bling-bling” lifestyle of traffickers instead of the larger context has not served the public good as much as other testimony could have. 

“It seems to service one single end, which is to illustrate – or at least get us to focus on – the downfall of this really shiny object,” he said. “But the downfall of this really shiny object does nothing to further us along the continuum of solving this problem.”

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