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Scapegoat or ruthless crime boss? The trial of El Chapo begins in New York

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The trial of drug baron Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is now underway.

Drug baron Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is the "scapegoat" of a cartel that bribed Mexican presidents, the defense told his New York trial Tuesday, as the prosecution branded him a ruthless criminal boss who murdered in cold blood.

The substantive phase of the case finally began with opening statements at what is expected to be one of the most expensive trials in US history after two jurors were dismissed at the last minute.

One woman was struck after complaining that the trial was causing her health problems, along with a man who claimed financial hardship, forcing lawyers and the judge to find two replacements before the full panel was sworn in.

Guzman, considered the world's largest drug trafficker since the death of Colombia's Pablo Escobar, is on trial in New York under draconian security arrangements after twice escaping from prison in Mexico. 

Emma Coronel, center, the wife of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman leaves Brooklyn Federal court after opening arguments in the trial of the Mexican drug lord known as "El Chapo," Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Emma Coronel, center, the wife of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman leaves Brooklyn Federal court.
AAP

He faces 11 trafficking, firearms and money laundering charges that will likely see him incarcerated for the rest of his life in a maximum security US prison if he is convicted at the end of the more than four-month trial.

He is accused of leading the Sinaloa cartel, turning it into the world's largest criminal group and of smuggling enough cocaine "for 328 million lines" - equivalent to more than one per every person in the United States.

But in opening statements, the defense alleged that Guzman's co-defendant who remains at large, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, was the real culprit.

"The truth is he (Guzman) controlled nothing, Mayo Zambada did," Jeffrey Lichtman told the US federal court in Brooklyn.

Zambada, he alleged, bribed everybody, "including the very top, the current president of Mexico and the former," he added in reference to Mexico's outgoing President Enrique Pena Nieto and his predecessor, Felipe Calderon.

Gold-plated AK-47

Both Calderon and Pena Nieto swiftly denied taking any bribes from the Sinaloa cartel, the former calling the allegation "absolutely false and reckless" and the latter saying it was "completely false and defamatory."

Guzman, who has been held in solitary confinement for nearly two years, is a "scapegoat," Lichtman added.

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, surrounded by US Marshals, waves to his wife as he enters the courtroom.
Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, surrounded by US Marshals, waves to his wife as he enters the courtroom.
AAP

"Why does the Mexican government need a scapegoat? Because they're making too much money being bribed by the leaders of drug cartels."

Prosecutors say that from 1989 to 2014, the Sinaloa cartel smuggled 340,892 pounds (154,626 kilograms) of cocaine into the United States, as well as heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana, raking in $14 billion.

"Money, drugs, murder; a vast global narcotics trafficking organization. That is what this trial is about and that is what the evidence in this case will prove," Assistant US Attorney Adam Fels told the court.

Guzman, he alleged in his opening statements, had his "own private army" of hundreds of armed men, as well as his own diamond-encrusted pistol branded with his initials and a gold-plated AK-47.

US prosecutors have spent years accumulating more than 300,000 pages and at least 117,000 recordings in evidence against Guzman.

They contend that he ordered or committed at least 33 homicides.

"You'll see how Guzman pulls the trigger," Fels told jurors.

"He was indeed the boss of his organization."

'Mythical figure'

Prosecutors promised to lay out "this global narco empire in his own words," from text messages and letters, and from witnesses detailing how he would receive $10 million from a single shipment of cocaine.

More than a dozen of those who are expected to testify are in witness protection programs or already in jail.

The defense sought to undercut the government's cooperating witnesses, saying that they were murderers who would "make your skin crawl." 

El Chapo has escaped from custody several times.
El Chapo has escaped from custody several times.

"Why are they willing to infect this country with these degenerates?" Lichtman hectored.

"Because El Chapo is the biggest prize this prosecution has ever dreamed of," he insisted. "He's a mythical figure."

Guzman twice escaped from prison in Mexico, once hidden in a laundry cart and the second time slipping down a tunnel that reached his prison shower.

In New York, he has been held in solitary confinement since January 2017.

His beauty queen wife, Emma Coronel, with whom he has been banned from having any direct contact or communication, attended court.

Exiting the building in the evening, she stopped to take a couple of selfies. Defense opening statements are set to continue Wednesday.

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