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Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzmán's guilty verdict matters — even if it isn't going to end drug trafficking

As U.S. law enforcement expands its reach around the world, the justice system must remain transparent and accountable.
Image: El Chapo
Authorities escort Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, from center, from a plane to a waiting caravan of SUVs at Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma, N.Y. on Jan. 19, 2017.DEA / AP file

After six days of deliberating, the jury in the trial of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán, the world’s most-wanted drug lord, finally delivered a verdict — guilty on each of the ten counts he was tried on.

This is not a significant victory in the war on drugs, nor really a victory in the war on drug trafficking. But it is a reassuring sign that as U.S. law enforcement continues to expand its reach around the world in the name of the war on terror, the courts — and the American people — have not been cut out of the justice process. Thus Guzmán's conviction is, at the very least, an important symbol of democratic accountability.

In this respect, it was also a win for the American system of jurisprudence at a time when the courts are under fire.

And in this respect, it was also a win for the American system of jurisprudence at a time when the courts are under fire, and when immigration issues and the drug war are increasingly being intentionally blurred together. According to the New York Times, Judge Brian Cogan, was “clearly emotional” when he told the jurors that in his entire career, he had never seen any jury so closely examine all the evidence. “Quite frankly, it made me proud to be an American,” he said.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is the U.S. law enforcement agency which officially has the broadest reach. It operates in 69 countries around the world and, thanks to various Patriot Act statutes, it now operates on the front lines of the war on terror, as former DEA officials like to tell me. “There is no more virulent form of terrorism than drug trafficking,” says former DEA chief of international operations Mike Vigil.


In U.S.-led overseas contingency operations, whether focused on terrorism, drug trafficking or a mix of both, the courts in foreign countries can and should play a key role. But in Afghanistan and Mexico, for example — both countries that receive aid from the U.S. to help strengthen the rule of law — the judicial system and law enforcement are not necessarily strong enough to handle the Guzmáns of this world.

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The hope, of course, is that in the years to come, a major criminal like Guzmán could be tried in a court in Culiacan, Mexico, rather than in Brooklyn. But until then, the ability of the U.S. to arrest — or assist in the arrest — extradite and prosecute criminals is a crucial deterrent. The DEA is not without its critics, both at home and abroad, but Guzmán's arrest is an example of the system working as it should to bring supercriminals to justice as fairly and transparently as possible.

In Afghanistan, the DEA has played a key role in forcing warlords to face justice in the U.S. court system. Haji Bagcho, who the U.S. accused of propping up the Taliban with heroin proceeds, was charged with narcoterrorism in 2012 and sentenced to life in prison. This narcoterrorism statute, created during President George W. Bush’s administration, has also been used to help weaken the FARC guerrilla group in Colombia and bring dozens of its leaders to trial in New York and Washington DC; it has also been used on several other big Taliban-connected warlords.

Guzmán was not accused of narcoterrorism, but testimony at both this trial and a previous Sinaloa cartel case in Chicago has linked his organization to such activity and weaponry, and there is no doubt that in the coming years, some of the more aggressive leaders of Mexican cartels will face narcoterrorism charges. Armed with controversial anti-drug laws like 2015’s Transnational Drug Trafficking Act, which then-President Barack Obama signed a few months before leaving office, prosecutors and law enforcement have more and more tools at their disposal. (The Obama-era law effectively allows prosecutors to go after international drug traffickers if there is “reasonable cause to believe” the drugs are eventually destined for the U.S.)

As with Guzmán, it will hopefully be jurors who decide these suspected criminals’ fates. Juries help ensure honesty on the part of prosecutors, defense attorneys and law enforcement. Even with high-profile cases, corruption and corner-cutting happen. But a diligent jury can act as an important backstop.

Even with high-profile cases, corruption and corner-cutting happen. But a diligent jury can act as an important backstop.

Judge Cogan was not exaggerating: The jurors in the Guzmán trial were subjected to 56 witnesses and shown just a part of what the prosecution called an “avalanche of evidence” — thousands of documents, audio and video files and transcripts of text messages and phone conversations — some of which they examined in close detail. During deliberations, jurors requested transcripts of testimony and specific exhibits, surprising some journalists covering the proceedings who (not surprisingly) couldn’t remember those details.

Although the defense did its best to trip up the government’s expert witnesses, and sought to portray Guzmán as a victim of an unjust system run by corrupt politicians and policemen, jurors appeared to see through such claims as baseless or irrelevant. Instead, the jury focused on the conspiracies that the government had to prove: namely, drug trafficking conspiracies and in the case of the complicated charge known as "continuing criminal enterprise," one allegation of murder.

If future juries are as deliberate as those who decided the fate of Guzmán, the fate of U.S. law enforcement operations, at home and abroad, appears to be in pretty good hands.