New York—Drug baron Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is the “scapegoat” of a cartel that bribed Mexican presidents, the defense told his New York trial Tuesday, as the prosecution branded him a ruthless criminal boss who murdered in cold blood.
The substantive phase of the case finally began with opening statements at what is expected to be one of the most expensive trials in US history after two jurors were dismissed at the last minute.
READ: Capo no more, Sinaloa drug lord faces trial in New York
One woman was struck after complaining that the trial was causing her health problems, along with a man who claimed financial hardship, forcing lawyers and the judge to find two replacements before the full panel was sworn in.
Guzman, considered the world’s largest drug trafficker since the death of Colombia’s Pablo Escobar, is on trial in New York under draconian security arrangements after twice escaping from prison in Mexico.
He faces 11 trafficking, firearms and money laundering charges that will likely see him incarcerated for the rest of his life in a maximum security US prison if he is convicted at the end of the more than four-month trial.
He is accused of leading the Sinaloa cartel, turning it into the world’s largest criminal group and of smuggling enough cocaine “for 328 million lines”—equivalent to more than one per every person in the United States.
READ: Mexico seizes 50 tons of meth in Sinaloa lab
But in opening statements, the defense alleged that Guzman’s co-defendant who remains at large, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, was the real culprit.
“The truth is he (Guzman) controlled nothing, Mayo Zambada did,” Jeffrey Lichtman told the US federal court in Brooklyn.
Zambada, he alleged, bribed everybody, “including the very top, the current president of Mexico and the former,” he added in reference to Mexico’s outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto and his predecessor, Felipe Calderon.
Both Calderon and Peña Nieto swiftly denied taking any bribes from the Sinaloa cartel, the former calling the allegation “absolutely false and reckless” and the latter saying it was “completely false and defamatory.”
Guzman, who has been held in solitary confinement for nearly two years, is a “scapegoat,” Lichtman added.
“Why does the Mexican government need a scapegoat? Because they’re making too much money being bribed by the leaders of drug cartels.”
Prosecutors say that from 1989 to 2014, the Sinaloa cartel smuggled 340,892 pounds (154,626 kilograms) of cocaine into the United States, as well as heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana, raking in $14 billion.
“Money, drugs, murder; a vast global narcotics trafficking organization. That is what this trial is about and that is what the evidence in this case will prove,” Assistant US Attorney Adam Fels told the court.
Guzman, he alleged in his opening statements, had his “own private army” of hundreds of armed men, as well as his own diamond-encrusted pistol branded with his initials and a gold-plated AK-47.
US prosecutors have spent years accumulating more than 300,000 pages and at least 117,000 recordings in evidence against Guzman.
They contend that he ordered or committed at least 33 homicides.
“You’ll see how Guzman pulls the trigger,” Fels told jurors.
“He was indeed the boss of his organization.”
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