After a morning plagued by delays and issues with the jury, the trial of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán began Tuesday in Brooklyn with an explosive round of opening statements, including allegations from the defense that the current and former presidents of Mexico took “hundreds of millions in bribes” from a Sinaloa cartel leader named Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.
On one hand, federal prosecutors alleged that El Chapo controlled a “vast global narco-empire” worth billions of dollars for more than 30 years. Prosecutor Adam Fels said that El Chapo shipped tons of cocaine and other drugs to the U.S., and was the “hands-on” boss who personally pulled the trigger on multiple murders.
In response, El Chapo’s lawyer Jeffrey Lichtman essentially alleged that El Chapo had been framed by El Mayo, another Mexican drug kingpin who prosecutors say partnered with El Chapo to run the Sinaloa cartel. Lichtman said El Mayo was the true leader of the cartel.
“While the world focuses on this mythical Chapo figure,” Lichtman said, “the world is not focusing on Mayo Zambada.”
Lichtman went on to claim that El Mayo put a spotlight on El Chapo by corrupting members of the Mexican government and working with the DEA. El Mayo is under indictment in the United States and one of the most wanted fugitives, but Lichtman claims the U.S. only “pretends to want him.”
“He bribes the entire government of Mexico, including up to the very top, the current president of Mexico,” Lichtman said of El Mayo. He added that El Mayo’s brother and two sons are cooperating with the U.S. government, and alleged that “they work together when it suits them, Mayo and the U.S. government.”
Current Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto denied the charge through a spokesman. "The government of EPN pursued, captured and extradited the criminal Joaquin Guzman Loera," a spokesman said. "The affirmations attributed to his lawyer are completely false and defamatory."
The previous president of Mexico, Felipe Calderón also denied the charge. "The affirmations said to have been made by the lawyer of Joaquin "el Chapo" Guzman are absolutely false and reckless," he said on Twitter. "Neither he, nor the Sinaloa cartel nor anyone else made payments to me."
Prosecutor Fels promised the jury that they would “get to hear Guzmán running his empire in his own words,” based off taped phone calls, video recordings and text messages.
The defense countered that the case would hinge on testimony from cooperating witnesses, who Lichtman called “gutter human beings” that have “lied every single day they could walk.”
“The story that unfolds here will shake everything you know about law enforcement or about government,” Lichtman said. He added that El Chapo has been “blamed for being a leader while the real leaders are living freely and openly in Mexico.”
Opening statements were set to begin early Tuesday morning but had to be postponed when two members of the jury were excused, one because she was afraid of participating in the trial and another because he could not afford to go without pay for the expected three to four-month trial.
Cover: Joaquin Guzman Loera, also known as 'El Chapo' is transported to Maximum Security Prison of El Altiplano in Mexico City, Mexico on January 08, 2016. Guzman Loera, leader of Mexico's Sinaloa drug Cartel, was considered the Mexican most-wanted drug lord. Mexican marines captured 'El Chapo' on Friday in Sinaloa, North of Mexico. (Photo by Daniel Cardenas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)