BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – Sending the notorious drug kingpin back to the pen, but this time in the U.S., an anonymous federal jury convicted Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman on Tuesday for his years-long reign over the Sinaloa cartel.
Wrapping up a trial that began in mid-November, the jury delivered their verdict this afternoon as a wintry mix settled in on New York City. The jury deliberated for about 35 hours before convicting the 61-year-old Guzman on all 10 counts. His conviction carries a life sentence.
As U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan read the verdict to the packed courtroom, Guzman stared straight ahead, sitting very still in front of a line of black-suited U.S. marshals. Like her husband, Guzman’s wife Emma Coronel did not diverge much from her typical behavior during the long trial. Her eyes cast downward, Coronel moved only occasionally to touch her hair or look at her fingernails. The jurors were solemn. The only sound in the room aside from Cogan’s voice was the rustle of paper as dozens of reporters from outlets around the world flipped pages on their verdict sheets, checking boxes.
When Cogan finished, Guzman craned his neck to look at Coronel, waved, and flashed her a thumbs-up. Dressed in a striking kelly-green blazer, Coronel returned the thumbs-up gesture then crossed her arms over her heart and blew Guzman a kiss. Guzman is under incredibly restrictive terms of confinement, which are expected to stay in place. Today was likely one of the last times he and his wife will ever see each other.
Guzman is set to be sentenced June 25, 2019, at 10 a.m.
In the prelude to the sweeping verdict, U.S. prosecutors mounted an overwhelming case against Guzman. They called more than 50 witnesses, including over a dozen cooperators, who spoke about drugs and weapons they had trafficked, as well as money laundered, with and for El Chapo. They told of their days gifting expensive guns to one another, flying around in private planes and helicopters, and sometimes sampling the drugs they moved.
Defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman vowed to appeal the verdict Tuesday, touting his team’s efforts in a press conference outside the courthouse under a steady fall of freezing rain.
“I don’t think anybody would doubt that we fought like hell,” Lichtman said. “We fought like complete savages and left it all on the battlefield.”
Lichtman blamed the press and the public for perpetuating what he has said are myths that surround Guzman.
“Joaquin Guzman was convicted before we even knew who Joaquin Guzman was,” he said.
Co-counsel William Purpura said the verdict had been one that Guzman expected.
U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Richard Donoghue spoke to reporters about the verdict as well this afternoon, saying Guzman had been dealt was a sentence from which there was no escape.
“There are those who say the war on drugs is not worth fighting,” Donoghue said. “Those people are wrong.”
Angel Melendez, the special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations New York, likewise underscored the “resounding message” that he said Guzman’s conviction sends to drug traffickers: “You are not unreachable, you are not untouchable, and your day will come.”
The first count of Guzman’s conviction, a Continuing Criminal Enterprise charge, carried with it 27 violations. Though a conviction on that charge merely required proof of three violations, the jury decided prosecutors had proven 25 of the 27. The two excluded claims pertained to specific cocaine and marijuana distribution charges from 2007 and 2012.
Law enforcement officers testified to participating in massive drug seizures and dramatic missions to capture the kingpin, who has twice escaped high-security Mexican prisons.
The courthouse on Tuesday was even more of a fortress than usual, with over a dozen U.S. marshals and court security officers inside the courtroom. Other officers could be seen posted around the court hallway and downstairs, joined by members of the NYPD and explosive-sniffing dogs. Such sightings have been routine throughout trial, but Tuesday also featured five U.S. marshals dressed in full battle garb standing guard with rifles in the lobby.
Guzman was first arrested in Guatemala in 1993 and for years, prosecutors said, conducted his trafficking business from hiding spots in the Mexican mountains. On the last day of the prosecution’s case, jurors saw video footage of Guzman’s infamous most recent prison escape, through a nearly mile-long tunnel dug under the shower in his cell.
Cogan thanked the jury profusely before discharging them Tuesday, praising their dedication and thoughtfulness in a long, complicated trial. He said their work showed why the U.S. uses the rare public jury system.
“It made me proud to be an American,” Cogan told them.
The judge took precautions last week to make sure that jurors would not consider a court filing unsealed after closing arguments.
Entered into the record on Feb. 1, the document mentions a witness who testified that Guzman had used a “powdery substance” to drug and rape girls as young as 13.
The witness quoted Guzman, whom he claimed to have lived with for a time, as having called the girls “vitamins” because they gave him “life.”
Along with others, according to the filing, Guzman and the witness paid $5,000 to have the girls brought to one of Guzman’s ranches. Another unsealed document addresses an allegation that Guzman had at one point in the past raped a female cooperating witness. The only female cooperator in the trial was Lucero Sanchez, an admitted associate of Guzman who also had an extramarital affair with him.
The filing was unsealed to comply with a schedule originally mutually determined by the parties.
Attorneys for Guzman have fought throughout the lengthy proceedings to find a defense that would stick. In his opening argument, Lichtman tried to tie Guzman’s arrest to a grand framing conspiracy by his alleged former partner, DEA fugitive Ismael “El Mayo” Garcia, and multiple Mexican presidents, whom he said “receive hundreds of millions of dollars” in bribes.
Cogan quickly put the kibosh on this line of argument, but it came back around when Colombian drug trafficker Alex Cifuentes testified on cross-examination that former Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto took $100 million in bribes from the Sinaloa cartel.
Beyond the defense strategy of conspiracy allegations to ensnare their client — instead of a conspiracy involving him — Lichtman and fellow defense counsel Purpura and Eduardo Balarezo tried to discredit cooperating witnesses’ memories and disparage their characters. They also attempted to sow doubt about whether intercepted text messages and phone calls, otherwise damning evidence, were actually Guzman’s communications.
Before the trial even started, Guzman’s attorneys had pushed to get it moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan, closer to where he was being held, arguing that the shutdown of the Brooklyn Bridge every time the kingpin was moved from prison to court could cause jurors to believe he was dangerous. The judge declined to move the proceedings to Manhattan, though he did agree to make arrangements for Guzman to be held closer to Brooklyn federal court during the trial.
In contrast to the extensive case put forward by the government, the defense for Guzman lasted all of 30 minutes. Lichtman called just a single witness, FBI agent Paul Roberts, and read a stipulation from another special agent.
The final day of the prosecution’s case also marked a bizarre clash of life and art, with “Narcos” actor Alejandro Edda in attendance.
Guzman grinned when his lawyers pointed Edda out to him in courtroom, and they checked each other out. Edda, who plays Guzman in the popular Netflix drama, also showed up for closing arguments Wednesday.
Even an acquittal today would not have resulted in Guzman’s freedom as several more indictments remain pending in other districts across the United States.
Word the jury had reached a verdict came just after noon Tuesday. About 20 more minutes passed before Guzman, Cogan and the jurors entered the courtroom, all through separate doors.
In the meantime, journalists filed into the gallery as a woman in a clerical collar who has attended the trial every day for weeks sat praying fervently in the back row. As Lichtman shook hands with the prosecution team, Guzman’s wife made her way to her seat where she played with her hair as she waited. A court translator handed Coronel a headset as she put back on boots that she had taken off to get through a metal detector in the hallway.