el chapo

Fistful of Dirt

El Chapo, upon arrest in Mexico in January 2016. Photo: Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images

Not the type to bang a gavel, Judge Brian Cogan ended the evidentiary portion of the El Chapo trial with one last entreaty to the jury not to discuss the case among themselves, or read about it on the internet. On Monday in the Brooklyn federal courthouse, the relentlessly modulated Cogan will charge the panel, explaining to the legal rules of case so they might better decide the fate of Joaquín Guzmán Lorea, the world’s most famous alleged drug dealer.

To those following the trial in room 8A at the Eastern District courthouse in downtown Brooklyn, the break in the action offered an opportunity to gauge what had been learned from the proceedings, and what had not.

Art and Life, Full Circle

The big news of the final day of trial was that Alejandro Edda, who plays Chapo in the current Netflix series Narcos: Mexico, had visited the courtroom. There was a nifty symmetry to actor’s visit. At the start of the trial it was considered a pressing problem that so many in the Brooklyn jury pool had not only heard of El Chapo but also had watched large portions of an earlier Netflix series, El Chapo, detailing how the drug lord rose from his father’s poppy farm in the Sinoloa mountains to the man who would send 200 metric tons of cocaine across the United States border, murdering dozens along the way.

It was thought that such portrayal of the defendant might influence the prospective jurors. Now, after ten weeks of hair-raising testimony full of a whole raft of criminality including tales of Chapo throwing enemies into raging bonfires, another Chapo was in the court. Adda said he felt it was important to see the man he was portraying in “the flesh,” so as to study his mannerisms. Chapo’s bituminous gaze had “intimidated” him some Edda said, but he vowed to get the look “down” so as to be more fearsome, especially if the streaming service spins off another Chapo-based melodrama. And so the art/life continuum came full circle.

That said, nothing on Netflix or the myriad number of narco-porn movies, docs, or trafficking podcasts out there come close to capturing the Chapo courtroom drama. The case might not have been the trial of the century, as the hype claimed back in the fall, but it had its moments.

In their maddeningly methodical, overkill way, the feds mounted a case of obsessive detail that afforded a hitherto unglimpsed view of the inner workings of the ultimate global commodity — illicit addictive drugs. As government prosecutors back in the day shed harsh light on the inner workings of the Mafia, the feds threw everything (how much tax money was spent has not been disclosed) into a case that will define a new kind criminal. In an era of assault on the federal investigatory prowess, the prosecution of El Chapo demonstrates the government’s continued willingness and ability to mount a case of overwhelming force, which considering the current political circumstances is something to be thankful for.

Trafficking Hall of Fame (Rat Division), a Dope Dealer’s Love

As for Guzmán himself, aside from blowing kisses to his wife Emma, he never said a word. Not that it mattered. Shorty had done his part. He was the famous El Chapo, the legend, and there  are hundreds of narcocorridos extolling his exploits. His own personal favorite, Un Puno de Tierra, or Fistful of Dirt, goes “on the day that I die, I won’t take anything with me. You must live life to the fullest for it ends too soon. Of all that happens in this world, all that’s left are the memories. When I die, all I’ll take is a fistful of dirt.”

In the service of the government’s case, Chapo served as a vector, a coalescing rationale to trot out their rogue’s gallery of “cooperating witnesses.” Of the 56 people called to the stand (55 by the prosecution, one by the defense) 14  were “cooperators,” former Chapo associates who had struck deals with the government to testify against the drug lord. Carefully coached by the feds (the defense said their testimony was “like reading lines from a play”) each cooperator had their own chapter and verse attesting to the defendant’s mendacity, the snow blind blizzard of cocaine, the murders, the social disruption of the Mexican Drug Wars.

For the observer, often agape at the phantasmagorical detail, favorites emerged among the cooperators. A small poll of the reporters, most of them from Spanish-language media outlets, were asked which three cooperators stood out from the government’s self-professed “avalanche” of evidence. Votes were cast for Jesus and Vincente Zambada, brother and son of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, respectively, whom the defense claimed was the real head of the Sinaloa Cartel, not the wrongly accused El Chapo. The urbane pragmatist/murderer Jorge Cifuentes and his brother Alex, Chapo’s long-time Colombian coke suppliers, got several mentions. Jorge, who revealed the class contempt with which Europeanized Colombians often regard Mexican traffickers, was touted by supporters as the only witness willing to cross Don Joaquin to his face, lambasting Chapo for poor decision-making that had resulted in the loss of shipments totaling several tons of coke.

Further ahead in the straw poll was Juan Carlos Ramírez Abadía, a.k.a. El Chupeta, a.k.a. The Lollipop, he of the four face transplants, a persona of palpable evil already discussed in these pages. There was also Christian Rodriguez, the erstwhile computer hacker who served as El Chapo’s youthful IT man. Once a upon a time, the feds went to the trouble of installing their own wiretaps; now, ultra-paranoid hoods like Chapo put in their own listening devices. This streamlining of the supply chain is fine as long as you’re not a tech-dumb country bumpkin and your computer guy hasn’t gotten such cold feet that he’s working clandestinely for the DEA. The tapes and texts recovered by the feds are likely the most damning evidence accumulated by prosecutors.

What most believed to be the most vivid testimony of the entire trial came from Lucero Sanchez, El Chapo’s former mistress who described accompanying the hunted, naked drug lord through the untidy sewers of Culiacán as they attempt to flee the Mexican authorities. An elegant chase scene through the caverns, like that depicted in The Third Man, it was not. Sanchez, now 29, was also responsible for perhaps the most instructive feminine moment of a proceeding almost totally dominated by tales of extreme machismo. Describing why she stayed with Chapo despite the danger, Sanchez said she was “confused.” She thought she and Chapo were “in love.” This comment drew something of a laugh from Chapo’s wife Emma who as always was seated in the courtroom wearing a Saks Fifth Avenue shawl and designer sunglasses. Some said Emma was laughing at Sanchez’s heartbreak. But most believed Emma’s response was one of sisterly sympathy, that she knew the truth of what it was like to believe El Chapo loved you.

It’s All About the 5K1

For all the money they are supposedly be getting, the Chapo defense, the trio of Lichtman, Eduardo Balerazo, and William Purpura had difficulty mounting any coherent case on behalf of their client. All three of the lawyers, who made little secret of their internal dissension, expressed at one time or another that “we have nothing.” Nothing except the cooperating witnesses.

“It’s the cooperators who gave this case life, who gave it breath,” Lichtman said, imploring jurors to dismiss their voluminous testimony. “Those witnesses told lies every day of their lives — their miserable, selfish lives,” he said. Calling the cooperators “scum” and “animals,” Lichtman said they were expecting “sweetheart deals” and reduced sentences for their own crimes so that they could “live among you.”

“They’d run over their mothers to convict that man,” Lichtman said, referring to his client, whom he reminded the jury was “a human being too.”

It was all about “the 5K1 letter…the 5K1 and the Rule 35 motion,” Lichtman said, referring to the document prepared by authorities aimed reducing jail time for witnesses who had provided “substantial assistance” in a government case. As the defense made clear, all the cooperating witnesses cared about was the 5K1. They didn’t want to die in jail, they’d say anything the government told them to.

They’re all lying to you, that was the defense’s theory of the case. It wasn’t just the narco crooks or the rats who informed on them who were corrupt. The entire system was rotten to the core, up to the US Attorney’s office and beyond. Look at the President. People didn’t want to think their government was crooked, but there it was, Lichtman said in his preternaturally cynical closing argument.  The 5K1 “get out of jail free card,” was but one example, but “that’s the way it works in America.”

These assaults on the integrity of the court were eventually met with government objection, sustained by Judge Cogan. A 65-year old from Chicago, on the federal bench since 2006, the quietly seething Judge was far from ready to toss the entire system onto the junkheap. The ideas that the government would act in such a dishonest manner were untenable, Cogan told the defense.

Things Unseen, Unheard

While exhaustive on the evidence within the parameters of the courtroom, the El Chapo trial remained steadfastly tone deaf regarding the larger social context of drugs in an era where the erstwhile devil weed marijuana has become a magic cure-all and people are dropping dead in droves from Big Pharma opiates. The question of why so few people can get through a single 24-hour period without getting high isn’t one to be answered in a court of law.

That duly noted, the feds were typically tight-lipped as to why don Joaquin was such a priority. His downfall will look good on the War on Drugs balance sheet, but will have little effect on the worldwide illegal drug trade. Perpetually on the run after his 2014 escape from the max-security Altoplano prison, the so-called kingpin has not been an active for the better part of a decade, yet international trafficking has gotten along fine without him. Rumored to have been handed over as “a gift” to President-elect Trump by then Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, recipient of an alleged $100 million bribe from the Sinaloa cartel, Chapo had no inflated sense of his own importance. Asked by Sean Penn in his infamous Rolling Stone interview (the audio played at the trial) if he thought he was “responsible for the high level of drug addiction in the world,” Chapo said, no, “the day I don’t exist, it’s not going to decrease in any way at all.”

On the last day of trial, a lively conversation started up about Chapo’s odds of acquittal and/or hung jury. The bidding began at 1,000-to-one against and soon reached 1,000-to-one. But you never know of course, but barring the upset of the century, Chapo will soon disappear behind the walls of the sort of super-max no one escapes from. He will be missed, in his way. He was a villain, as deserving of life in prison as anyone, but he gave great trial.


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