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Mexican Kingpin 'El Chapo' Guzman Appears in Court to Face 'American Justice'

"As you looked into his eyes you could see the surprise, you could see the shock, and could actually see the fear," a federal agent said.
Image: Chapo Guzman
A New York City police officer talks with Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman in this photo obtained by NBC News.

The epic quest to bring Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman to the United States culminated Friday in a New York courtroom, where the feared former leader of the Sinaloa cartel appeared in a navy jail uniform to face charges that could keep him behind bars for the rest of his life.

Guzman, 59, arrived overnight from Mexico, where he'd escaped prison twice before authorities agreed to ship him north. Federal grand juries in a half-dozen American cities have indicted him over the years, but the U.S. Attorney's Office in Brooklyn is getting the first crack at prosecution — with help from counterparts in Miami.

Related: A History of the Notorious Sinaloa Cartel

Guzman stood unshackled before a federal judge and pleaded not guilty to 17 counts covering nearly a quarter-century of drug trafficking, including the operation of a continuing criminal enterprise. He said through an interpreter that he understood the charges, and left the courtroom without looking to the gallery packed with law enforcement agents.

Officials declined to say where Guzman was being held.

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman appears before a judge in this courtroom sketch from Jan. 20, 2017.Christine Cornell

Angel Melendez, special agent in charge of homeland security investigations for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said he made a special trip to MacArthur Airport on Long Island to see Guzman get off the plane.

"As you looked into his eyes you could see the surprise, you could see the shock, and to a certain extent you could actually see the fear as the realization began to kick in that he's about to face American justice," Melendez said.

Authorities said that if Guzman went to trial, they'd call about 40 witnesses who'd paint a detailed portrait of how the Sinaloa organization operated.

Guzman's court-appointed lawyers said they would work to ensure he got a fair trial, and suggested they'd challenge the methods by which he was brought to the United States.

"We look forward to addressing the allegations, that will include whether Mr. Chapo was extradited appropriately," one of the lawyers, Michael Schneider, said.

U.S. authorities first sought to extradite Guzman in 2014, when he was arrested after more than a decade on the lam. Mexico resisted, saying national sovereignty compelled the country to deliver justice itself.

Related: Who is 'El Chapo?' A Look at the Master of the Underground Tunnel

That changed after Guzman, who'd escaped a Mexican prison in 2001 by hiding in a laundry cart, humiliated authorities again by tunneling out of the maximum security Altiplano prison in July 2015.

Guzman was recaptured six months later, undone by an uncharacteristically reckless move: seeking out filmmakers, including Sean Penn, to help make a biographical film.

Related: Rare Courting of Hollywood Spelled Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman’s Doom

U.S. and Mexican authorities have worked closely in recent years to capture Guzman, with the Obama administration sharing sophisticated intelligence and law-enforcement firepower, including satellites and wiretaps.

But U.S. officials remained concerned about sharing too much information with Mexican authorities in light of documented evidence that some have secretly fed that intelligence back to Mexico's powerful drug trafficking organizations — including the Sinaloa cartel.

That was the case after Chapo's July escape, which the U.S. warned Mexico of weeks earlier.

Current and former law enforcement officials have speculated whether Guzman would try to broker easier treatment by offering evidence of corruption in Mexico.

Related: Will El Chapo Rat Out Rival Cartels, Corrupt Officials?

Authorities said nothing of that Friday. Instead, they focused on Guzman's long and violent career, dating to the 1980s, when he took over Colombian delivery routes began funneling tons of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine into the United States. He used hitmen, known as "sicarios," to collect debts, silence witnesses, murder rivals and intimidate public officials, they said. He established distribution hubs in New York, Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, El Paso, San Diego, Los Angeles and Phoenix, feeding the drug habits of millions of Americans, authorities said.

They said they were seeking to obtain by forfeiture more than $14 billion in American proceeds that Guzman's operation laundered across the border.

"He is a man known for no other life than a life of crime, violence, death and distribution," said Robert Capers, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. "And now he’ll have to answer to that."