FILE PHOTO: Recaptured drug lord Joaquin
Recaptured drug cartel boss Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman is escorted by soldiers in Mexico City on January 2016 © Reuters

Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the Mexican drug lord who staged two sensational jailbreaks in his home country, faces life in a US high-security prison after being found guilty in a drug-trafficking trial in Brooklyn federal court. 

The 61-year-old former boss of the Sinaloa cartel was convicted Tuesday on 10 counts, including criminal enterprise and conspiring to smuggle drugs, following a three-month trial that proved as jaw-dropping as the Netflix series Narcos.

Mr Guzmán, who faces a mandatory life term in prison when he is sentenced on June 25, did not testify in his own defence at one of the most high-profile drugs trial in US history. It took place as Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, vowed to rein in spiralling violence that claimed a record 30,499 lives in 2018, and US President Donald Trump clung to promises to build a border wall that he says is needed to deter drugs.

Fourteen co-operating witnesses — including the engineer who set the cartel leader up with an encrypted phone system and a former mistress — provided enough testimony to seal Mr Guzmán’s conviction after six days of jury deliberations.

It may have seemed the chronicle of a conviction foretold for a man who has already served nearly a decade behind bars in Mexico since he was first captured in 1993 — and who, according to US prosecutors, personally bludgeoned two victims until their bodies were “completely like rag dolls” and coolly shot a rival cartel member before ordering him to be buried while still gasping for air.

Nonetheless, Mr Guzmán’s lawyer, Eduardo Balarezo, who last week tweeted an image of a pistol-shaped tequila bottle over the words “for after trial”, promised to appeal.

The court was riveted by lurid testimony that shone an unprecedented light into one of the world’s most successful criminal enterprises, and the larger-than-life boss who masterminded the smuggling of tens of thousands of kilos of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines and marijuana north of the border for decades. He racked up a fortune that earned him a place on Forbes’ billionaires list a decade ago.

Jurors heard how Mr Guzmán had three pistols encrusted with diamonds and a gold-plated AK-47; how he engineered the transfer of drugs through tunnels and in jalapeño pepper cans; how he personally shot victims; how he phone-tapped adversaries and lovers; how he allegedly paid millions of dollars in bribes, including to former Mexican presidents; how he laundered millions, including through a juice company; and how he fled, naked, as security forces closed in before his last capture in 2016.

“The reign of Joaquin Guzmán Loera’s crime and violence has come to an end,” said Christopher Wray, FBI director.

Richard Donoghue, US attorney for Brooklyn, told reporters the sentence meant “no escape, no return” for a man who became rich “pouring poison over our southern border”.

Experts said the trial proved that drug bosses could outsmart any border wall. But Ted Cruz, the Republican senator from Texas, tweeted: “Let’s pass the EL CHAPO Act and make El Chapo pay to secure our border.”

Matthew Whitaker, acting US attorney-general, said the drug boss’s downfall “serves as an irrefutable message to the kingpins that remain in Mexico, and those that aspire to be the next Chapo Guzmán, that eventually you will be apprehended and prosecuted”.

“This was expected — there was no space for any other result,” said Alejandro Hope, a Mexican security and drugs expert. Mexico’s government had no immediate reaction.

Mr Hope said the jailing of El Chapo would have scant impact on cartel dynamics in Mexico since Mr Guzmán had been out of the business since his extradition to the US two years ago.

Mr López Obrador has signalled an end to the so-called kingpin strategy of going after top drug lords. But Mr Hope did not expect a sharp change in policy — largely because the US remained focus on kingpins.

Mr Guzmán, whose nickname means “shorty”, was once credited with smuggling half of all the illicit drugs into the US and twice escaped high-security jails in Mexico. He was on the run for 13 years after escaping jail in 2001, either in a laundry cart, or, according to some accounts, dressed as a policeman.

While on the run after tunnelling out of jail under his cellblock shower in 2015, he had a secret meeting in a jungle hideout with Sean Penn, the Hollywood actor. He wanted his story told on the silver screen.

The Sinaloa cartel is now thought to be under the control of the septuagenarian Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who is believed to be living in a mountain lair.

He is not Mexico’s most wanted man, however. That title belongs to Nemesio Oceguera, alias “El Mencho”, head of the Jalisco New Generation (JNG) cartel — currently Mexico’s most aggressive in the newly fragmented organised crime landscape.

The JNG’s turf battles with the Sinaloa cartel have helped fuel a spike in murders in the border city of Tijuana, Mr López Obrador’s first security flashpoint.

The inside scoop on the Sinaloa cartel could potentially help snare “El Mayo”, said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.

“This is a test of the new [Mexican] administration and whether they can do more than has been done in the past,” he said. “But people are not terribly optimistic.”

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