Here's the most damning evidence against El Chapo

The world's most notorious drug kingpin may be undone by his own blunders.
El chapo trial evidence

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Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán is wily, to say the least. At seemingly every turn over the past 30 years, the Sinaloa cartel leader has managed to vanquish his enemies and dodge justice using a mix of brains, bribes, brutal violence, and sheer bravado. But when his long-awaited trial finally kicks off this week in Brooklyn, it seems none of that will be enough to save him. El Chapo is facing life in prison on an array of drug, weapons, money laundering, and conspiracy charges, and the U.S. government’s case against him looks airtight. Much of the evidence still remains secret, including the identities of at least 16 cooperating witnesses who have cut deals with the government. But the court filings that are publicly available suggest that El Chapo is well and truly screwed, in no small part due to his own blundering.

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In just the last month, prosecutors handed over 117,000 audio recordings and 14,000 pages of new documents, leading to a last-ditch effort by El Chapo’s lawyers to delay the trial. At a hearing last week, they stacked 23 thick white binders on a table and told Judge Brian Cogan it would be “impossible” to review all of the evidence. Cogan was unmoved by the theatrics and ordered the case to proceed, beginning with jury selection Monday.

Prosecutors have already laid out their case against El Chapo in broad strokes. They plan to tell the jury about his epic rise from mid-level drug trafficker to leader of Mexico’s most powerful cartel, an ascent made possible by his cunning and ruthlessness.

But accusing and proving are two different things, and in order to convince the jury that Chapo is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the government will need to offer proof that was indeed the leader of a “Continuing Criminal Enterprise” known as the Sinaloa cartel.

It seems they have no shortage of ammunition.

Here’s the most compelling evidence against El Chapo that has emerged so far.

THE TAPES

Recent court filings from El Chapo’s attorneys reference “tens of thousands of recorded conversations” that the government has turned over as part of the pretrial discovery process. It’s unclear exactly how many of those are useful and how many are just chit-chat between El Chapo and his people, but at least a few are likely to be damning.

For instance, twin brothers Pedro and Margarito Flores, who were major drug dealers in Chicago, are known to have secretly recorded a conversation in which El Chapo discusses a multi-kilo heroin deal. The existence of the recording was disclosed in a book by the brothers’ wives, which recounts their decision to flip on El Chapo and other high-ranking Sinaloa cartel leaders.

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Even worse for El Chapo, prosecutors have evidence obtained from FlexiSpy, a type of commercial spyware for cell phones that allows users to tape phone calls and monitor activity on apps such as Facebook. Unsealed court documents indicate that Chapo installed FlexiSpy on his own phone, and that he had 35 different accounts. It’s still unclear why El Chapo was using FlexiSpy, but the upshot is that the government now has a trove of data from the spyware that can — and likely will — be used against him during the trial.

Another key piece of video evidence figures to be a tape that El Chapo made himself, at the request of Sean Penn and Kate del Castillo. He met the actors while he was on the run in 2015 and seeking to turn his life story into a movie. Penn later wrote about the meeting for Rolling Stone, and as part of the story El Chapo recorded a video in which he responds to a list of questions. He discusses the drug business in some responses.

THE MURDERS

El Chapo isn’t technically charged with murder, but that doesn’t mean the jury won’t hear about many gruesome acts of violence for which he is allegedly responsible. As part of the effort to prove that El Chapo was calling the shots in a massive criminal conspiracy, prosecutors plan to accuse him of involvement in multiple homicides.

Most of the killings were allegedly committed on El Chapo’s orders, but one witness is expected to testify about seeing him personally execute members of Los Zetas in 2006. According to a court document, El Chapo interrogated the rival cartel members after eating lunch one day, then “had them beaten and then personally shot them both in the head with a long gun.” He then allegedly “ordered his workers to dig a hole in the ground, light a fire inside the hole, and throw the bodies in the hole to be burned and subsequently buried.”

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Prosecutors initially submitted a list of El Chapo’s alleged murder victims that included 28 entries. They subsequently expanded the list to 33 people, which drew the ire of Judge Cogan at the final pretrial hearing. He called the list “way too much” and “out of control,” and ordered the government to “take your best shot and cut the rest.”

“This is a drug conspiracy case that involves murders,” Cogan said. “I’m not going to let you try a murder conspiracy case that happens to involve drugs.”

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Some of the murder accusations are extremely dubious and involve people who were killed long ago. At least one “victim” listed by prosecutors might still be alive. But even though the prosecution is only allowed to present evidence about only a few homicides during the trial, the graphic testimony is sure to make an impression on jurors.

THE DEFENSE

The list of evidence against El Chapo goes on and on, with court documents referencing dozens of seized drug shipments, “ledgers” that detail the cartel’s business operations, and photos of El Chapo with other known cartel members. There’s even a mention in one filing of “the defendant’s book.” Details about the book are redacted, but the implication is that El Chapo was putting together an autobiography that could be used against him.

El Chapo’s lawyers will clearly have their work cut out for them. They have not yet revealed their defense strategy for the trial, but they have offered some clues. First and foremost, it seems they intend to tell the jury that witnesses who testify against El Chapo — which are likely to include including several former Mexican and Colombian kingpins — should not be trusted because they’re criminals who are only trying get leniency for themselves.

In an interview with El Chapo’s lawyers earlier this year, attorney Eduardo Balarezo said U.S. authorities have been trying for years to connect every major drug shipment that gets seized with his client.

“I’ll put it this way,” Balarezo said. “If anybody trafficked drugs out of Colombia in the last 30 years or if anyone trafficked drugs in Mexico in the last 30 years, when they get arrested, the governments will say, ‘Do you know Joaquín Guzmán?’ and they know that Joaquín Guzmán is basically the get-out-of-jail card.”

Balarezo has also suggested in court that El Chapo was merely a “middle manager” who “had to take orders from somebody else,” but it’s unclear whether that argument will actually used during the trial. Perhaps more compellingly, the defense may try to make the case to the jury that El Chapo can’t be as all-powerful as the prosecution has made him out to be because drugs are still flowing into the U.S.

“If he was the major, number-one drug trafficker in the world, then you would see some sort of diminution, some sort of stop, some sort of problem with the drug flow. And you haven't seen that whatsoever,” William Purpura, another El Chapo lawyer, said. “So are there many people involved in bringing drugs into this country? The answer is yes.”