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Prosecutors have accused Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman of directing massive drug shipments from Mexico into the United States. His defense has downplayed the drug lord's role in the drug operation, calling him a "scapegoat."
A lawyer for accused Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman on said in an opening statement on Tuesday that his client was a "scapegoat" for the real leaders of Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel.
"He's blamed for being the leader while the real leaders are living freely and openly in Mexico," attorney Jeffrey Lichtman told a jury in the Eastern District Court in Brooklyn on the first day of Guzman's drug trial.
Lichtman claimed Guzman, 61, "controlled nothing" and it was Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, who is still at large, in charge of the drug operation. Zambada had bribed Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, Lichtman said, a claim that the president denied on Tuesday.
The remarks came after Assistant US Attorney Adam Fels laid out the US government's case. The prosecutor told jurors how Guzman got his start in a modest marijuana-selling business in Mexico and turned it into a blood-drenched smuggling operation that funneled shipments of heroin, cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine into the United States.
Guzman faces 17 criminal counts and a potential life sentence if convicted in a trial that is expected to last several months.
Guzman, who twice escaped from maximum security prisons, has been kept in solitary confinement in Manhattan. He was transported to the Eastern District Court in Brooklyn in a heavily guarded motorcade for his trial, which is being held behind closed doors.
Tuesday's opening statements were delayed for hours after two jurors were dismissed from the lineup, forcing lawyers and the judge to re-interview potential candidates before the full panel could be sworn in.
The prosecution has said they will present thousands of documents, videos and recordings as evidence. Several of Guzman's former associates are scheduled to testify after striking cooperation deals with US prosecutors. US District Judge Brian Cogan has barred courtroom sketch artists from drawing these witnesses as prosecutors say they risk retribution by taking the stand.
The witnesses include Ismael Zambada's son, Vicente, and Chicago-born twins Pedro and Margarito Flores, one-time drug traffickers who secretly taped Guzman.
In addition to Lichtman, Eduardo Balarezo and William Purpura will also represent Guzman at the trial. The two attorneys defended Mexican drug lord Alfredo Beltran Leyva, a partner-turned-rival of Guzman who pleaded guilty to US drug charges and was sentenced to life in prison by a federal judge in Washington last year.
Robin Hood figure
According to the indictment, Guzman, whose nickname means "Shorty," is responsible for ordering thousands of murders during the years his Sinaloa Cartel funneled 200 metric tons of cocaine as well as other drugs into the United States, pulling in $14 billion (€12.3 billion).
He was a once a larger-than-life figure in Mexico, and has been the subject of ballads called narcocorridos. He was viewed by some as a modern-day Robin Hood who was popular with the downtrodden. His arrests led to protests in the streets of Sinaloa, a state located on the western coast of Mexico.
Guzman was known to carry a gold-plated AK-47 assault rifle and a diamond-encrusted pistol, though he was guarded by a near-army of enforcers and cartel assassins. He was perhaps best known for his two successful prison escapes, the first by hiding in the bottom of a laundry bin in 2011, and the second by slipping through a long tunnel dug from a shower in his jail cell.
dv/rc (AFP, AP, Reuters)