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.
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.”
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.