NEW YORK (AP) — The infamous Mexican drug lord and escape artist Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was alternately portrayed at his U.S. trial on Tuesday as a calculating leader of a bloodthirsty smuggling operation that funneled tons of cocaine and other drugs into American cities and a scapegoat for a conspiracy whose actual mastermind bribed crooked Mexican officials as high as the president to keep his freedom.
In opening statements amid tight security in federal court in Brooklyn, Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Fels told a jury whose identities have been kept secret how the man who got his start in a modest marijuana-selling business became a kingpin known for using an army of hit men to wipe out his competitors and anyone within his Sinaloa cartel who betrayed him.
“Money. Drugs. Murder. … That is what this case is about,” Fels said.
Defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman sought to shift blame in his opening to Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, another reputed drug trafficker in the cartel’s leadership who is still at large in Mexico. The lawyer claimed that unlike Guzman, Zambada remains on the loose because of bribes that “go up to the very top,” including hundreds of millions of dollars paid to the current and former presidents of Mexico.
He also suggested U.S. law enforcement turned a blind eye to the situation.
In a tweet, a spokesman for current President Enrique Pena Nieto called the sensational allegation “completely false and defamatory.” A separate tweet by ex-President Felipe Calderon called it “absolutely false and reckless.”
One of Zambata’s sons is expected to be the first of several government cooperators to testify against Guzman, possibly as early as Wednesday.
Guzman, who has been held in solitary confinement since his extradition to the United States early last year, has pleaded not guilty to charges that he amassed a multi-billion-dollar fortune smuggling tons of cocaine and other drugs in a vast supply chain that reached well north of the border.
Despite his diminutive stature and nickname that means “Shorty” in Spanish, Guzman was once a larger-than-life figure in Mexico who has been compared to Al Capone and Robin Hood and been the subject of ballads known as narcocorridos. He appeared in a dark suit and tie on Tuesday as he listened to Fels describe how he started modestly in the early 1970s by selling marijuana in Mexico, but built his reputation by constructing tunnels across the Mexico-U.S. border to transport marijuana and cocaine so fast that he was “no longer El Chapo, the short one.”
Instead, he became known as “the speedy one.” Before his tunnels, it had taken weeks to move drugs across the border to the U.S.
Before long, Guzman was receiving 10 to 15 planes “stuffed with cocaine” each day from Colombia at landing strips in Mexico for transport to cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, Fels said.
As his business flourished using the tunnels, trains, planes and vessels, Guzman began taking aim at rivals in the early 1990s, leading to bloody wars. In 1993, he fled to Guatemala but was captured and imprisoned in Mexico for eight years, where he continued running his drug empire, Fels said.
The prosecutor spoke of two dramatic escapes from prison by Guzman and said he was planning a third when he was brought to the U.S. One of his escapes in 2015 was through a mile-long tunnel dug into a shower in his jail cell that he slipped into before fleeing on a motorcycle.
The tunnel escape was a black eye for the Mexican government, an embarrassment amplified when the actor Sean Penn was able to find and interview him at one of his hideouts in Mexico while he was on the run from authorities.
Fels said Guzman used some of his wealth to pay off the Mexican military and police and to finance assault rifles, grenade launchers and explosives to engage in “war after bloody war.” He accused the defendant of personally shooting two men and having their bodies burned.
Guzman’s attorney told jurors it would have been impossible for him to be in charge of the cartel since he was either in jail or hiding out in the Mexican countryside during the entire time U.S. prosecutors claim he was the leader.
Some of the cooperators will “tell you he has no money,” Lichtman said.
An email written by a U.S. agent who eavesdropped on Guzman for a year wrote, “Chapo was more of a myth than an actual legend,” and that he was “not impressed” by him, the lawyer added.
Opening statements were delayed about six hours on Tuesday after two jurors were dismissed for hardships and were replaced in a proceeding in another courtroom. Dozens of members of the media and other spectators were left waiting in the trial courtroom and in an overflow room with a warning that they would lose their seats to people in a long line outside if they stepped away.
Associated Press writer Peter Orsi in Mexico City contributed to this report.