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Drug kingpin ‘El Chapo’ to face ‘most expensive trial’

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Drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is escorted into a helicopter at Mexico City’s airport, following his recapture during an intense military operation in Sinaloa State in 2016. ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP

Drug kingpin ‘El Chapo’ to face ‘most expensive trial’

JOAQUIN “El Chapo” Guzman goes on trial in New York on Monday, accused of running the world’s biggest drug cartel and spending a quarter of a century smuggling more than 155 tonnes of cocaine into the US.

The mammoth trial in Brooklyn, which will cost millions of dollars and is expected to last more than four months, will see one of the world’s most notorious criminals face the US justice system.

Prosecutors spent years piecing together a sweeping case against Guzman, who was extradited last year after twice escaping prison in Mexico – first hidden in a laundry cart, then slipping down a tunnel that reached his prison shower.

Experts say the government has a near water-tight case likely to send Guzman, 61, to a maximum-security US prison for the rest of his life, after jury selection kicks off on Monday. But at what price?

The Sinaloa cartel that Guzman founded in 1989 is still hugely powerful. His co-defendant Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada remains at large, and violent drug trafficking continues unabated in Mexico.

Last year, Mexico witnessed a record 29,000 murders. In the US, opioid addiction has spiraled into an epidemic. In 2016, an average of 174 Americans died every day from drug overdoses.

Jury selection will be conducted in the tightest security reserved only for the most dangerous defendants. US District Court Judge Brian Cogan will preside over the process behind closed doors.

‘Most expensive trial in history’

The 12 jurors, with six alternates, will remain anonymous. US Marshals will escort them to and from the federal court every day.

These ordinary men and women will determine whether Guzman – the diminutive father of two whose nickname means “shorty” – is guilty or not of 11 trafficking, firearms and money laundering charges.

According to the indictment, the Sinaloa cartel, which Guzman is accused of leading from 1989 to 2014, became “the largest drug trafficking organisation in the world . . . with thousands of members.”

US prosecutors contend that from 1989 to 2014, the cartel smuggled at least 154,626kg of cocaine into the US, as well as heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana, raking in $14 billion.

Guzman pleads not guilty, but the government has presented so much evidence – more than 300,000 pages and at least 117,000 audio recordings – that the defence complains they haven’t had enough time to review it all.

“It’s probably set up to be the most expensive trial in the history of the US,” says Rob Heroy, a North Carolina lawyer who has defended other Mexican drug barons. The price tag includes protection programmes for at least some of the several hundred witnesses expected to testify.

Even Guzman’s lawyers are in the dark as to all the former associates, hired hands or rivals who have turned informants.

‘Separated by thick glass’

Some of the informants have already been absorbed into the US witness protection programme, given new identities. Others are already in jail, housed in special wings to protect them from reprisals.

Guzman has been held in solitary confinement in New York since Mexico extradited him in January last year, one day before Donald Trump took office. He spends 23 hours a day in his cell.

The only visitors he is allowed are his lawyers and twin daughters, from whom he is separated by thick glass.

The judge has banned his 29-year-old beauty queen wife, Emma Coronel, from visiting. Instead, she has attended almost all his pre-trial hearings, waving and blowing him kisses from the gallery.

Arrested for the first time in Guatemala in 1993, El Chapo spent more than seven years in a Mexican prison before his first escape in 2001.

Re-arrested by Mexican marines in February 2014, he escaped again 14 months later.

Guzman was re-captured in January 2016 after a visit from Hollywood actor Sean Penn and a Mexican actress, who wanted to make a film about his life, allowed Mexican authorities to trace his whereabouts.

This time, Mexico decided to wash their hands by putting him on a plane.

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