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The Case Against El Chapo: What We Know So Far

From a fleet of submarines to roughly 500 tons of cocaine, here’s what the U.S. plans to pin on the drug lord in court.

After decades of evading the authorities with almost mythic agility, New York’s Eastern District has finally pinned Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán down in a lower Manhattan jail. The Sinaloa cartel kingpin faces what U.S. Attorney Robert L. Capers called “a 17-count, sweeping indictment,” including drug distribution, money laundering and most broadly, “leading a continuing criminal enterprise” – which covers his activity from 1989 to present day. If charged with that alone, he faces a mandatory minimum of life in prison.

When he was extradited to the United States, California, Illinois, Texas and New Hampshire all had cases against him as well – but Justice Department determined that, in partnership with the Southern District of Florida and the Bureau of Narcotic and Dangerous Drugs, the Eastern District of New York “brought the most forceful punch, in the way of a case” Capers said. In our most recent glimpse into their evidence against the drug lord, the U.S. Attorney filed a indictment on Friday to keep Guzmán detained without bail. It describes an operation with influence across four continents, and “nearly boundless, undisclosed wealth.” This document builds on a case against the cartels that began in 2009 – detailing their operations and the crimes they committed to maintain them. Here’s what we know so far about the case they’ve built:

Even for a drug lord, he moved a LOT of drugs.
The vast majority of the evidence against Guzmán and the movements of the Sinaloa cartel are drug seizures by the U.S. government. In a 2014 indictment against him and his first lieutenant, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García, the United States charged him with 163 violations of international cocaine distribution, totaling an approximate 457,212 kilograms (roughly 500 U.S. tons) of the drug. In 2016, the U.S. Attorney’s office itemised their cocaine seizures by individual busts. They go back as far as September 1999, just ten years after Guzmán reportedly entered the drug business, and they found as much as 12,000 kilos of cocaine in a single raid.

He’s on the hook for a handful of murders as well.
As a young leader in the cartels, Guzmán made a name for himself as the most ruthlessly pragmatic man in the business – rumoured to deliver a single gunshot to the head if a delivery arrived late. The most recent indictment describes “a stable of ‘sicarios,'” hitmen that Guzmán dispatched to commit “murders, assaults, kidnappings, torture and assassination at his direction.” The indictment refers to “thousands of acts of violence” by his sicarios, but details few of the specific murder charges against him. (They do, however, paint a gruesome picture of his alleged assassination of a cartel rival, Julio Beltran, who was gunned down in the streets “using so many rounds of ammunition that Beltran’s head was almost completely separated from his body.”)

But in the 2014 indictment against Guzmán and García, the possible murder charges are laid out individually. Many of the names were kept out of the public record, simply referred to as “John Doe,” but a few stand out: he is accused of orchestrating the murder of Rafael Ramirez-Jaimes, a Mexican federal prosecutor who was lured out of his home and shot right outside of his front door in 2008; he’s also charged with facilitating the murder of Roberto Velasco-Bravo, a major player in the federal police agency’s organised crime division. The indictment also documents charges for the murder of Rodolfo Carillo-Fuentes, younger brother of the leader of the Juarez cartel, and numerous other members of rival organisations.

el chapo sub
One of the semi-submersible submarines that Capers’ office says El Chapo used with the help of Colombian cartels. They can carry as much as six tons of cocaine.

His transportation network spans land, sea and air.
The indictment documents the diverse system of transportation that Guzmán established to move cocaine from South American countries, through Mexico and into the United States. According to the document, the cartel’s transportation system used everything from tractor trailers to “clandestine landing strips” for small planes, to “semi-submersible submarines which were capable of transporting up to six tons of cocaine for water-based trafficking.” This network did not just impact the US-Mexico border, but also Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Panama.

The U.S. Attorney has a multi-pronged offensive.
Caper’s office plans to present drug ledgers from Colombian cartel bosses, that show the financial specifics of the business dealings between them and Guzmán, as well as “numerous weapon and drug weapon seizures.” This includes a shipment of AK-47s and .50mm long rifles that they say is tied to Guzmán.

The U.S. Attorney plans to call some 40 witnesses who have had “face-to-face dealings” with Guzmán and his organisation. They are expected to span the entire time period that he is charged with running the cartel, and represent Colombian cartel leaders, Mexican and Colombian traffickers and U.S.-based distributors. Witnesses are expected to describe, first hand, his bribery of public officials, drug trafficking and money laundering operations, as well as “specific murders carried out under Guzmán’s orders, including that of Sinaloa cartel members, members of rival cartels and also government and law enforcement officials.”

The indictment also states that they have wire taps of Guzmán’s conversations regarding specific drug transactions, “as well as other court-authorised electronic surveillance.” According to the U.S. Attorney, law enforcement intercepted and recorded communications that demonstrate Guzmán’s involvement in shipment of nearly 900 kilos of cocaine between 2013 and 2014.

However, none of the names of these cooperating witnesses have been made public, and they aren’t likely to. The powerful infrastructure of the Sinaloa cartel is still in place, even in the absence of Guzmán—and the indictment explicitly points out that Guzmán’s sicarios were regularly dispatched to “[silence] those who would cooperate with law enforcement against his interests.”

What’s next for his trial?
His first hearing in front of Judge Brian Cogan, who will preside over his case, is scheduled for Friday, February 3rd. He will appear in court with a Spanish interpreter and his two court-appointed federal defenders, Michelle Gelernt and Michael Schneider. So far, he has not made any moves to retain his own representation. Some have suggested that it’s because the U.S. government is planning to seize his estimated $14 billion fortune, limiting his ability to pay his own legal fees. Others have suggested that the so-called narco bar of cartel defence lawyers in the southern United States could be representing the witnesses that plan to testify against him, instead. This hearing will determine the next steps in what promises to be a lengthy and complex case.