The feds revealed their main witness against Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera in opening arguments in his federal drug trafficking trial on Tuesday — "El Chapo" himself.
"For 25 years he sent massive quantities of drugs [into the United States] and ran a vast narcotics empire," assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Fels told jurors as the long-awaited Brooklyn federal court trial against the alleged Mexican drug lord got underway.
"El Chapo" — Mexican slang for "Shorty" — had "his own private army with assault weapons for his protection and he even had a diamond encrusted handgun with his initials and a gold plated AK-47. He controlled Sicarios [hitmen] and ordered them to kill, and sometimes he did the killings himself," Fels said.
He recounted Guzman's rise from low-level marijuana dealer to alleged cocaine kingpin.
Guzman made his mark by slashing delivery time, using tunnels and a few planes to make swift deliveries while building up relationships with the Colombian cartels, the prosecutor said.
"He played a critical role in the supply chain," Fels continued. "Soon he was using more tunnels, planes,trains, cars, fishing boats and even submarines.
He escaped jail twice and his mystique grew. Soon he had a team of smugglers, killers, pilots [that] was known as the Sinaloa cartel dealing drugs to New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. He sent his killers to wipe out his rivals and he used sophisticated methods of communications including encrypted cell phones and apps, prosecutors said.
"Little did he know the U.S. government was listening," Fels said. "You will hear him in his own words and text messages running his drug empire, drug deals, his corruption and murders."
Prosecutors are also expected to use testimony from a dozen cooperating witnesses to prove their allegations that Guzman is the murderous head "of the largest drug drug trafficking organization in the world."
Guzman, 61, is standing trial on a 17-count indictment charging him with drug trafficking, murder conspiracy and money laundering.
His lawyer, Jeffrey Lichtman, focused on the cooperating witnesses in his opening statement — calling them "people who will make your skin crawl."
"Imagine a group of witnesses who have lied every day of their lives. They are killers, thieves, drug dealers," Lichtman said. "Why is the government using gutter human beings?"
He said the case will show that "government officials at the highest levels can be bribed and American law enforcement officials can be corrupt."
As for his client, Lichtman said he's been framed.
"Biggest drug dealer in the world! It's false. It's not true," he said,
"Why is he public enemy #1? Because 25 years ago a Mexican cardinal was shot by mistake at an airport and Guzman was the intended target. The corrupt Mexican government needed a scapegoat," Lichtman maintained. "They framed him for murder and that was the beginning of the mythological status and his myth grew."
"He's blamed for being the leader while the real leaders are living freely and openly in Mexico," he added.
Opening arguments had been expected to start in the morning, but were delayed until the afternoon because two of the jurors had to be replaced.
One juror brought a doctor's note saying she was too anxious to serve on the jury, which is being kept anonymous for security reasons. Another was excused after he said that serving on the months-long trial would be too much of a financial hardship.
In the courtroom for the proceedings was Guzman's former beauty queen wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro. A lawyer for Guzman had asked Cogan to allow her client to give his wife a hug before opening arguments, but the judge turned the request down, citing security concerns. A smiling Guzman waved in her direction after he was brought into the courtroom Tuesday.
Guzman notoriously escaped from two maximum security prisons in Mexico. That's resulted in extremely high-security in the courthouse, with extra metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs.