El Chapo just ran out of options.
The infamous former leader of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, whose given name is Joaquín Guzmán Loera, was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole in 2019, but his case was not fully resolved until Tuesday, when the 2nd Circuit Court of appeals upheld his conviction.
The 64-year-old kingpin appealed his guilty verdict on several fronts, but his case hinged on allegations of rampant juror misconduct reported by VICE News in a story published eight days after the end of his three-month trial in Brooklyn. The blockbuster case was dubbed “The Trial of the Century,” and cemented El Chapo’s legacy as the world’s most notorious drug trafficker.
In the report from February 2019, an anonymous member of El Chapo’s jury described disobeying orders from the judge by following the high-profile case in the media, and claimed other jurors also broke the rules and lied to the court when confronted about it. Several jurors were allegedly exposed to information that was not admitted as evidence in the trial, including claims by a cooperating witness that El Chapo drugged and raped underaged girls.
El Chapo’s defense team argued that the information tainted the jury, and should have triggered a reversal of his conviction for drug trafficking, money laundering, and ordering murders and other acts of violence while leading his criminal organization. But the appellate court didn’t buy it. A panel of three judges agreed that the trial was conducted “with diligence and fairness,” and that the presiding judge was under no obligation to haul in jurors for questioning about the misconduct claims.
“The unsworn, uncorroborated statements that one unidentified juror made to a magazine reporter do not constitute the ‘clear, strong, substantial and incontrovertible evidence,’ requiring any juror inquiry beyond that already made,” the 2nd Circuit judges wrote in their decision.
The Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, which led El Chapo’s prosecution, declined to comment.
El Chapo’s lawyers did not immediately respond to inquiries about the ruling.
The 2nd Circuit panel noted that Judge Brian Cogan questioned the jurors about potential misconduct and exposure to media coverage before ultimately deciding the issue did not warrant a mistrial or dismissal of any members of the jury. Following publication of the VICE News story, Cogan ruled that even if jurors were exposed to media coverage of the case, there was still “a mountain range of evidence” that would have led to a conviction.
The appellate judges agreed with Cogan, writing “any possible prejudice was harmless in view of the overwhelming evidence of Guzman’s guilt.” The evidence included testimony from 14 cooperating witnesses, including some of El Chapo’s closest associates in the drug trade, along with thousands of text messages, recorded phone calls, and video footage.
The juror who spoke to VICE News also emphasized that reading about the case in the press had no bearing on the jury deliberations, a detail that was not lost on the appellate judges.
“None of the allegations in the VICE News article shows that any juror was not impartial, harbored bias against Guzmán, or was otherwise unfit to serve,” the 2nd Circuit judges wrote.
“None of the allegations in the VICE News article shows that any juror was not impartial, harbored bias against Guzmán, or was otherwise unfit to serve.”
The appellate court also swatted down several other arguments from El Chapo’s legal team, including claims that the drug lord was unfairly held in solitary confinement while his case was pending trial; that text messages and other digital evidence should not have been admissible during the trial; that his extradition was technically unlawful; and that the trial judge erred by not allowing the defense to cross-examine a key cooperating witness about his “paranoid beliefs,” which included some unusual theories about aliens, the Illuminati, and witchcraft.
The appellate court ruled that further cross-examination of the witness, Colombian drug trafficker Alex Cifuentes, “would have been cumulative and had little probative value,” and that the trial judge’s decision to not allow it was “not remotely prejudicial.”
El Chapo’s appeal also took aim at his own lawyers, arguing that his lead trial attorney, Jeffrey Lichtman, had a conflict of interest because he “negotiated questionable settlements” in other cases and violated his client’s strict rules on pretrial detention.
In a leaked text message cited in the appeal, Lichtman asked an associate if it was “bad that I’m hiring a belly dancer to be Chapo’s daily visitor? . . . he has no pretty women visiting him. I feel bad.”
Without indicating whether Chapo actually received a visit from a belly dancer, the appellate court rejected the argument, ruling there was no conflict of interest and writing that “Guzman was not deprived of a complete defense.”
El Chapo was accused of illegally importing more than a million kilos of cocaine from Mexico to the U.S., along with significant quantities of cocaine, marijuana, and heroin. Prosecutors also said he “used murder, kidnapping, torture, bribery of officials, and other illegal methods to control territory throughout Mexico and to subdue opposition.”
El Chapo is currently serving out his life sentence at ADX Florence, an ultra-secure federal prison in Colorado known as “The Alcatraz of the Rockies.” He’s held under special restrictions that limit his contact with the outside world to just his attorneys and a handful of close relatives.
While El Chapo is out of the picture in Mexico, the Sinaloa Cartel remains one of the world’s most powerful and prolific drug trafficking organizations. The group is now split into factions, with one led by El Chapo’s longtime partner Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada and another headed by his adult sons, who are collectively known as Los Chapitos. The United States government is offering multi-million dollar bounties for their capture.
El Chapo’s wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, also ran afoul of U.S. authorities. The 32-year-old former beauty queen was charged last year with helping El Chapo escape from prison in Mexico and being involved in his drug trafficking activities, and she eventually pleaded guilty after surrendering to the FBI. While El Chapo is stuck serving life, Coronel received a relatively light three-year sentence and could be released even sooner with good behavior.
Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton