Cartel Cowboy

Jessica Loudis on the El Chapo Trial

Joaquín Guzmán Loera, also known as “El Chapo.” in U.S. custody, January 19, 2017. 

ON THE AFTERNOON of January 16, a group of reporters assembled in the overflow room across the hall from where Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the Sinaloa cartel leader, known as “El Chapo,” was being tried. There are drawbacks to watching the trial there—the grainy quality of the live video feed, the fact that viewers can’t see the defendant react to explosive testimony— as opposed to the courtroom, but outside the purview of the judge, the atmosphere is also more relaxed. As a Homeland Security agent stepped down from the witness stand, in the overflow room a reporter from El País jumped to his feet and, grinning, turned to the other journalists. Everybody knew that one of El Chapo’s mistresses was going to testify next, but which one would it be? People began shouting names, almost none of which were the same.

El Chapo’s trial began in mid-November and is expected to wrap up at the end of this month. From the beginning, when police started shutting down the Brooklyn Bridge each morning to transport him to court in a “coffin-like box” with a heavily armed convoy, there has been a steady drip of mind-boggling details. Jurors have been treated to firsthand accounts of how El Chapo evaded capture by disappearing into a tunnel beneath his bathtub and running naked through the sewers of Culiacán, and to rumors—which originated with El Chapo himself—of how he bribed former Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto with $100 million, and to stories of how he escaped from prison, the first time, by hiding under a laundry cart, which at one point nearly toppled over. As witnesses have come forth and casually recounted the kingpin’s efforts to eliminate rivals or smuggle enormous quantities of drugs into the United States in submarines and tanker trucks, the surreal has, for those involved, become part of daily routine.

Perhaps inevitably, the trial has developed its own culture. Among the roughly two dozen journalists gathering at the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York, in Brooklyn Heights, every morning, sometimes as early as 6:30 AM, there are reporters from the New York Times, the New York Post, and Vice (always first in line); members of the Mexican press (the most affable); and an eccentric mother-daughter sketch-artist team, who have been a fixture in New York City courtrooms for decades. As it gets closer to 9:30, when proceedings actually begin, lawyers and paralegals start to file in, along with El Chapo’s wife, the twenty-nine-year-old former beauty queen and Instagram celebrity, Emma Coronel Aispuro. In the days before Christmas, she was accompanied by their daughters, seven-year-old twins in matching white jackets with black bows in their hair. So long as one of his mistresses isn’t testifying, El Chapo will sit in the courtroom and gaze longingly at Emma.

For a trial with such heavy security as El Chapo’s, the environment is strangely congenial. Lawyers joke around; journalists discuss the witnesses of the day and swap cartel trivia like sports fans. The morning that Vicente Zambada Niebla, the son of Sinaloa co-head Mayo Zambada, was testifying, a reporter from Univision told me that Vincente had been nicknamed the “hot narco” in Mexico, and speculated about how prison had affected his physique. (He’s still in shape.) Then, just before 9:30, the diminutive sixty-one-year-old defendant will file in with guards, followed by the eighteen-person jury.

Save a mistrial or a hung jury or some kind of deus ex machina, popular opinion is that there is no way El Chapo is not going to spend the rest of his life in prison. To build a case against him, the government has spent decades slowly working its way up the cartel chain, capturing narco after narco and offering them reduced sentences or witness protection to testify against their former boss. One of the most damning witnesses has been Christian Rodriguez, El Chapo’s IT guy, who set up the encrypted systems that allowed the kingpin not only to communicate with trusted associates but also to spy on them. Rodriguez, who began working for the Cifuentes family of drug traffickers (more on them later) when he was only twenty-one, agreed to cooperate with the FBI after getting caught in a sting operation, in which agents posed as Russian mobsters. Rodriguez, who was visibly anxious on the witness stand, gave the FBI full access to El Chapo’s systems in exchange for relocation to the United States and $480,000. This, however, was not why he was in court. After he had been in the United States for several years, it came to light that he had not been paying taxes on his government money. Why? “I didn’t want to,” he told the prosecutor. And so, another deal later, Rodriguez ended up testifying.

Jośe Manuel Figueroa with El Chapo.

To defend their seemingly indefensible client, El Chapo’s lawyers have adopted an inventive array of tactics. An oft-repeated phrase is that the drug lord is “more myth than legend,” implying that the true mastermind is his former partner, Mayo Zambada, who is currently running the cartel. Another, more colorful approach is discrediting witnesses with criminal backgrounds as sociopaths and liars. Jeffrey Lichtman, one of the three main members of the defense team and former lawyer to John Gotti Jr., is especially fond of taking what Judge Brian Cogan has described as a “machine-gun” approach to cross-examination.

To wit, here is Lichtman questioning a former El Chapo fixer:

“You ever seen The Godfather?”
“You know who Fredo is?”

Of course, these witnesses have cut deals and practiced their testimonies with the fiscales, and they’re less likely to be as forthcoming with the defense. During the cross-examination of Alex Cifuentes, a member of one of Colombia’s most notorious drug trafficking families and a former associate of El Chapo’s, Lichtman found himself running in circles to get a straight answer.

Here is Alex responding to claims that his brother bribed a DEA agent:

“I don’t know if it was a gift or a bribe.”
“It was a box full of cash.”
“[Only] a cell phone box.”

And his brother, Jorge, discussing the family’s tendency to take out hits on relatives:

“Your family had issues like any other family, right?”
“Yes, gossip here, gossip there.”
“Like your brother ordering the murder of your nephew?”

But apart from such performative moments, the trial is both shocking and dull. On one especially tedious day, a government lawyer spent hours presenting photographs of evidence seized in an FBI raid of a vacation house believed to be El Chapo’s. Despite Cogan’s repeated warnings to keep things short, the lawyers quizzed an FBI agent about item after item, ostensibly to establish that, a) the house was El Chapo’s, and b) he lived in luxury. Yet somewhere in the middle, the narrative was lost. By the end of direct questioning, jurors had heard about El Chapo’s presumed pant size (thirty-two inches wide by thirty inches long), shoe preference (black Nikes), and shoe size (nine). The relevance of this would only become apparent weeks later, when one of El Chapo’s mistresses testified that she bought him thirty-two-by-thirty-inch pants—which she would shorten because they were always too long—and black Nikes, though she didn’t remember what size.

In a different trial, the FBI agent’s account might have made for compelling testimony, but having seen kilos of confiscated heroin and rocket-propelled grenade launchers rolled into the courtroom, jurors were threatening to doze off. On cross-examination, the defense decided to jab at the government’s credibility by putting a new spin on the evidence:

“Those [Nike] shoes aren’t in the courtroom now, are they?”
“No, sir.”
“So, the jury couldn’t know if they fit Mr. Guzmán, could they?”
“No, sir.”
“If they don’t fit—”

This O.J. moment was perhaps intended to call attention to another aspect of the trial: that the vast majority of the jurors are people of color, and several are immigrants. But if this was a wink at police bias, the remark seemed misplaced in a case where jurors do have to worry about their safety. El Chapo has a long history of getting rid of people who threaten him: During his last trial in Mexico, the judge overseeing the case was assassinated while jogging. Before that, El Chapo was accused of trying to kill potential witnesses and informants. For this case, jurors are allowed to go home at night, though their identities and addresses are strictly protected.

Watching El Chapo in the courtroom in Brooklyn, there is an element of truth to the idea that his persona is largely a myth. Over the past several months, it has become abundantly clear that he is not a superhuman figure but the leader of an organization so powerful it corrupted much of Mexican law enforcement. As one DEA agent testified, capturing the cartel leader required not only planning and executing an elaborate military operation on his home turf, but making sure that local Mexican police were kept in the dark so he wouldn’t be tipped off. But that was a different situation. Thousands of miles away from Mexico, the still-powerful Sinaloa organization can no longer help him. El Chapo is being tried in Brooklyn because, flawed as our justice system is, he can’t buy his way out.