A Lesson About the Fight Against Drug Trafficking From the El Chapo Trial

Updated: Feb 12, 2019 2:52 PM ET | Originally published: Feb 07, 2019

Two brazen prison escapes is a lot for a jury to look past. But in closing arguments at the federal trial of the world's most famous accused drug lord, his lawyer pleaded with jurors to do just that. Look past the notorious nickname and headline-grabbing revelations of the trial, he implored in a voice first booming then softening, and see the man Joaquín Guzmán rather than "the myth of El Chapo."

But by the time jurors began deliberations on Feb. 4, government prosecutors had put forth what they called an "avalanche of evidence" that Guzmán—who had been facing the possibility of life in an American prison since his trial began in Brooklyn in November—deserved his infamy. After deliberating for 34 hours across six days, the jury found Guzman guilty of all charges Tuesday. Before he was led out of the courtroom, the famous drug lord turned to his wife Emma Coronel Aispuro, who flashed him a thumbs up and nodded at him.

Across three months, prosecutors had laid out text messages, audio recordings and dozens of testimonies painting Guzmán as a serial philanderer and a murderous cartel kingpin who regularly resorted to violence to defend his stake in the multibillion-dollar Sinaloa cartel.

"Do not let him escape responsibility," Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Goldbarg said, alluding to the prison escapes, by laundry cart and tunnel, that made Guzmán a household name in the U.S. even before his 2017 extradition. "Hold him accountable for his crimes."

And yet U.S. authorities are among those eager to look past the El Chapo myth, if in a different way than defense lawyers ask. The drug business may hold allure to show business--the actor Alejandro Edda, who portrays Guzmán in Netflix's Narcos: Mexico, showed up in the gallery one day--but the trial methodically laid out the reality of how a massive criminal enterprise is run on a daily basis. A witness testified that, in 2008, Guzmán commissioned an encrypted communication network for use by members of his inner circle; the Colombian IT specialist who built the network flipped, giving U.S. authorities key access to the entire system. A dozen of the 56 prosecution witnesses were admitted criminals--many of them among Guzmán's closest confidants--who had struck deals in hopes of shortening their own prison sentences. The defense team made much of this tactic.

Prosecutors, for their part, made clear that the pursuit of justice was a far greater challenge south of the border. Cooperating witnesses described how the cartel breached the highest levels of the Mexican government and its police force. One of the most damning allegations to emerge was the claim that Guzmán paid former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto $100 million to stop looking for him while he was on the lam. Peña Nieto's former chief of staff has vigorously denied the claim.

U.S. law-enforcement agents also told jurors how corruption hindered previous efforts to capture Guzmán and other cartel leaders. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Victor Vazquez testified that the 2014 mission to recapture Guzmán in Mazatlán, Mexico, worked only because it was kept secret from the local police, who experience warned might tip off the targets of raids. "Using them again," he said, "was not going to work."

A trial is always a show. On any typical day during El Chapo's, dozens of journalists and tourists lined up in the courthouse lobby before 7 a.m. to vie for seats. Guzmán would enter with a wave to his wife Emma Coronel Aispuro, then shake hands with his attorneys.

But for all the attention, researchers say it's unclear that taking down any individual kingpin does much to impact the illegal drug trade, fueled by relentless demand in America. Other criminals step up to take over vacant roles, and the period of instability often triggers more violence.

Yet law enforcement presses on. The DEA's latest National Drug Threat Assessment says Mexican criminal enterprises like the Sinaloa cartel pose the greatest illegal drug threat to the U.S. Guzmán's trial presented much evidence of his skill at finding new ways to get drugs across the border--by plane, train, automobile, submarine, tunnel and even, allegedly, in cans of jalapeño peppers. The merits of President Trump's border wall went unaddressed.

On the Mexican side, meanwhile, a new President has announced a new approach, one driven by revulsion at the extraordinary bloodshed associated with the drug trade. In 2018, Mexican officials opened 33,341 murder investigations, a 33% increase over the prior year and a new high. On Jan. 30--the very day prosecutors gave their closing arguments in the El Chapo trial--President Andrés Manuel López Obrador declared an end to his country's war on drugs, saying he would no longer prioritize capturing cartel bosses, in hopes of breaking the cycle of violence. "[Arresting them] is not our main purpose," said López Obrador. "The main purpose of the government is to guarantee public safety."

López Obrador, a leftist elected in July by the largest margin in Mexico's modern history, vowed instead to address the root causes of crime. "Hugs, not gunshots," and "You can't fight fire with fire" were among his campaign's slogans. There are plenty of skeptics. But the trial of El Chapo--full of revelations as it was--offered few options for a different path forward.

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