Listen to "Chapo: Kingpin on Trial" for free, exclusively on Spotify.
BROOKLYN, New York — After nearly three months of drama and intrigue, the epic trial of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán ended Tuesday when the jury delivered a unanimous guilty verdict on all 10 counts of the Sinaloa cartel leader’s federal indictment.
The jury of eight women and four men deliberated for six days before convicting the 61-year-old Mexican drug kingpin on a litany of charges related to drug smuggling, murder, money laundering, and weapons possession. He now faces a mandatory sentence of life in U.S. federal prison with no chance for parole.
Chapo, dressed in a black suit with a gray shirt and black tie, sat with a blank stare on his face as the verdict was read. He appeared stunned. As he was escorted out of the courtroom by guards, he locked eyes with his beauty queen wife, Emma Coronel, who sat in the gallery in a lime green jacket. Chapo nodded his head and she flashed him a thumbs up, visibly holding back tears.
Speaking outside the courthouse after the verdict was read, U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue said, “His conviction is a victory for every American family who lost a loved one to the black hole of drug addiction.”
Defense lawyer Jeffrey Lichtman, also speaking outside the courthouse, said: “We fought like hell. We fought like complete savages and left it all on the battlefield.”
He added: “Of course we're going to appeal.”
Although the deliberations dragged on longer than expected, there was never much doubt about the outcome. In her closing argument, lead prosecutor Andrea Goldbarg delivered a seven-hour PowerPoint presentation that ran through “a mountain of evidence” against Chapo, tracking his decades-long rise from “a kid from a family of little means” to “one of the most powerful leaders of the Sinaloa cartel.”
The witnesses included 14 cooperators who were once close with Chapo but flipped on him in exchange for leniency in their own cases. The jurors — who were kept anonymous over concerns they might be threatened or killed — heard hundreds of wiretapped phone calls and saw thousands of intercepted text messages where Chapo openly discussed his drug business.
Chapo’s own handwritten letters and drug ledgers detailed the day-to-day operations of his vast empire, which involved shipping thousands of tons of cocaine, heroin, meth, and marijuana to the U.S. and Canada. Chapo waged bloody wars against rival traffickers, and was accused of personally torturing and executing at least three men.
The jury seemed to methodically weigh the evidence, with particular focus on the complex “Continuing Criminal Enterprise” charge in Count 1 of the indictment, which included 27 separate “violations” related to various drug shipments and murders. They asked to review testimony by a half dozen major cooperating witnesses, which amounted to thousands of pages of transcripts. The jury ultimately found Chapo guilty of all but two of the 27 violations, deciding that a 19-ton cocaine shipment from 2007 and a 409-kilo marijuana shipment from 2012 had not been proven.
Judge Brian Cogan read the verdict, and afterward the defense team asked for the jurors to be polled one by one to confirm the outcome. The jurors seemed to avoid eye contact with Chapo, but each confirmed the guilty verdict without hesitation. Cogan told the jurors they could drop their anonymity and speak to the media if they wished, but he warned them against it. “Once you open that door, you can’t close it,” he said.
Cogan also thanked the jury for being so careful in their deliberations: “The way you went about it was really quite remarkable, and frankly it made me proud to be an American.”
The defense called just one witness, an FBI agent, who testified for less than 30 minutes. In his closing statement to the jury, defense attorney Lichtman alleged that Chapo was essentially a patsy who was set up by Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, another leader of the Sinaloa cartel. He went so far as to claim that the voice on the wiretapped phone calls actually belonged to El Mayo, and that Mayo’s brother and eldest son — who both cut deals and testified against El Chapo — were involved in the plot.
“It’s a brilliant plan for Mayo Zambada, and it has worked flawlessly for decades now despite Mayo being under indictment in America since forever,” Lichtman said. “Cooperate, bribe, have constant contact with the government, stay free, throw someone to the feds — the cocaine keeps flowing. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, forever — nothing changes.”
El Chapo twice escaped from maximum-security prisons in Mexico — once in a laundry cart and once in a mile-long tunnel — and so the trial unfolded under heavy security. Jurors were escorted to and from the courthouse under the guard of U.S. Marshals. Chapo typically wore a suit and was not chained in the courtroom, but he was constantly flanked by guards. The Brooklyn Bridge was shut down whenever he was moved from his jail in Manhattan, where he’s been held in solitary confinement under restrictive conditions since his extradition from Mexico in January 2017.
The trial made it clear that El Chapo’s escapes — and much of his illicit business — was made possible by rampant corruption. Witnesses testified about delivering bribes to all levels of law enforcement, government, and the military in Mexico. One witness said Chapo sent a $100 million bribe to former Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, an allegation that his spokesman called “false, defamatory, and absurd.”
The jury was blocked from hearing some of the most lurid allegations. Documents unsealed at the request of VICE News and the New York Times referenced a claim from one witness that Chapo drugged and raped girls as young as 13 years old. He allegedly called the victims his “vitamins” because sex with them gave him “life.” The witness, a Colombian named Alex Cifuentes who served as Chapo’s personal secretary, said his boss paid $5,000 to a woman named “Comadre Maria” to have the girls delivered to their hideout in the mountains. The same “Comadre Maria” was supposedly involved in bribing Peña Nieto.
El Chapo’s lawyer Eduardo Balarezo denied the allegations, which he said “lack any corroboration and were deemed too prejudicial and unreliable to be admitted at trial.” The defense repeatedly attacked the credibility of the cooperators, pointing to their sordid pasts and accusing them of lying under oath.
“This isn’t about justice; we are not here to do justice, this trial,” Lichtman said in his closing argument. “This trial is about one thing and one thing only: getting Chapo. Forget fairness, forget justice, forget the law, forget the ethical obligations. None of it matters. Just get Chapo.”
In response, prosecutor Amanda Liskamm reminded the jury that testimony by the cooperators corroborated the wiretapped calls, drug ledgers, and other hard evidence. The defense had urged the jury not to “give in to the myth of El Chapo,” but Liskamm reminded the jury that he was a real criminal sitting right there in the courtroom.
“He’s not a made-up myth or an inflated presence that we keep hearing about,” she said. “This is reality.”
Prosecutors will now try to seize a whopping $14 billion from Chapo, the total estimated value of the drugs he shipped into the U.S. over the years. So far, they have not been able to locate any of the drug lord’s cash or assets.
Chapo has not been formally sentenced, but because he was convicted of leading a “continuing criminal enterprise,” federal law requires that he receive life with no shot at parole. He will likely spend his remaining years at ADX Florence, a supermax prison in Colorado known as the “Alcatraz of the Rockies.”
The facility already houses another powerful Mexican kingpin, former Gulf cartel leader Osiel Cárdenes Guillén, as well as several convicted terrorists, spies, and gang leaders from the Mexican Mafia, Aryan Brotherhood, Gangster Disciples, and Latin Kings. Inmates are isolated from each other in solitary confinement and have limited contact with the outside world. No prisoner has ever escaped, but then again there's never been an inmate quite like Chapo.