BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) — Charged with running a narcotics empire across half a dozen nations with a fleet of boats, planes, and submarines, Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman became a folk legend for escaping U.S. and Mexico authorities.
Over the course of more than two decades, Guzman allegedly rose through the ranks of a crime syndicate, grew his empire across four continents, and twice escaped from Mexican prisons — including once through sophisticated tunnels dug by his associates.
On Friday afternoon, Guzman pleaded not guilty to the allegations against him, hours after dozens of law enforcement officials from across the United States celebrated the imminent proceedings against a man who had eluded U.S. custody for so long.
Angel Melendez, the special agent-in-charge of the Department of Homeland Security’s Department of Investigation, told reporters that Guzman had been reduced to helplessness upon landing at New York’s McArthur Airport on Thursday night.
“Last night, some of us had the opportunity to see him arrive at the airport and as he deplaned, the most notorious criminal of modern time, as you looked into his eyes, you can see the surprise,” Melendez said. “You could see the shock, and to a certain extent, you could actually see the fear. As the realization started to kick in that he’s about to face American justice. And he’s about to face American justice in a city that’s foundation is bedrock. As strong as the will of the citizens that live in this city.”
Taking note of Guzman’s two-time humiliation of Mexican prison authorities, Melendez promised that the same would not occur on U.S. soil.
“I assure you, no tunnel will be built leading to his bathroom,” he said.
Together with his alleged partner Ismael Zambada Garcia, Guzman faces arraignment for a 17-count indictment charging him with smuggling 200 tons of narcotics. The counts against him include running a continuing criminal enterprise, international cocaine distribution, money laundering, murder conspiracy and other charges.
If convicted on the top counts, Guzman will face mandatory life imprisonment and a $14 billion forfeiture.
The United States had to table the death penalty to win his extradition from Mexico, which abolished capital punishment in 2005.
Four years later, Guzman began his first stint in prison after a gun battle at Guadalajara International Airport killed Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo in 1993.
Still, Guzman’s business empire continued to grow from behind bars, and court papers recount how his ability to escape prison transformed "El Chapo" into a figure of Mexican folklore.
“Guzman’s exploits made him a cult-like celebrity to those from his home state of Sinoloa,” a 24-page memorandum states. ”He was viewed as a modern-day Robin Hood, popular with the down-trodden and extolled in popular songs. There was civil unrest and popular protests in the streets of Mexico, condemning Mexican authorities for their valiant efforts in his capture.”
U.S. Attorney Robert Capers, whose office at the Brooklyn-based Eastern District of New York will be prosecuting Guzman, rejected that depiction of the drug leader.
“Guzman’s destructive and murderous lives as an international narcotics trafficker is akin to that of a small cancerous tumor that metastasized and grew into a full-grown scourge that for decades littered the streets of Mexico with the casualties of violent drug wars over turf,” he told reporters.
Comparing Guzman to an "ambitious chief executive officer," Capers said that the cartel leader "diversified his portfolio" with a methamphetamine trade that took the Sinaloa to Africa and Asia, including India and China. The distribution network ran as far north as Canada, prosecutors say.
U.S. Attorney Wilfrero Ferrer, representing the Miami-based Southern District of Florida, noted that extensive cooperation that U.S. federal and local districts teaming up Mexican authorities led to Guzman’s capture.
“The footprint of the Sinaloa cartel expanded exponentially under the leadership of Guzman because they assumed the risk of both transporting narcotics shipments over the Mexican-American border and they were also charged with distributing these narcotics across the United States,” he said.
With Sinoloa presence from coast-to-coast — including in Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, El Paso, Chicago, Atlanta and New York — the “vast majority” of these drugs were consumed in the United States, according to the indictment.
In Latin America, Sinaloa presence expanded from Mexico to use Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela as "source countries," prosecutors say.
Deputy Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Blanco promised the public would learn more about the “breadth and width” of Guzman’s operation, if the case goes to trial.
“You’re going to see the full panorama of things that we have been talking about and that you’ve been reading about for years,” he said.
Capers declined to say who would testify against Guzman, but court papers speak of "numerous" cartel leaders who have turned on the Sinaloa leader.
"Numerous Colombian Cartel leaders and other suppliers are expected to testify concerning their multi-ton cocaine shipments to Guzman, including the details of Guzman’s investment in the drugs," the memo states. "They will also testify concerning their use of air, sea and land routes to transport cocaine into Mexico. Finally, they will quantify the astonishing illegal profits that Guzman made from the sale of the drugs."
Physical evidence is said to include business ledgers, surveillance footage, and weapons and drug seizures.
Examples of those seizures are depicted in 11 court exhibits.
Court-appointed defense attorneys did not oppose the government's request to keep Guzman in pretrial detention, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Magistrate Judge James Orenstein has not set a trial date.
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