Notorious drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is a scapegoat for the real leader of Mexico’s drugs cartel, his lawyer says.
Guzman is on trial accused of leading the Sinaloa cartel from 1989 to 2014 – the biggest drug trafficking organisation in the world.
But on the first day of his trial in New York, Guzman’s lawyer claimed the real ringleader was a man named Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.
“He’s blamed for being the leader while the real leaders are living freely and openly in Mexico,” Jeffrey Lichtman told Brooklyn federal court.
“In truth he controlled nothing. Mayo Zambada did,” he added.
Mr Lichtman claims Zambada had been left free because he “bribes the entire government of Mexico including up to the very top, the current president of Mexico”.
President Enrique Pena Nieto’s spokesman denied the accusation, saying: “That is false.”
Mr Lichtman’s statement came after attorney Adam Fels laid out the US government’s case, describing how prosecutors would prove that Guzman rose from a low-level marijuana trafficker in the 1970s to lead the powerful Sinaloa Cartel.
Mr Fels said that Guzman, 61, eventually established relationships with Colombian cartels that allowed him to make billions of dollars moving cocaine.He said jurors would see evidence of seized cocaine shipments adding up to “more than a line of cocaine for every single person in the United States”.
Mr Fels told the jury that Guzman left a trail of violence, turning parts of Mexico into war zones as he fought rivals to expand his reach.
He said jurors would hear of how Guzman shot two members of a rival cartel, and ordered them to be thrown into holes and burned.
Guzman faces 17 criminal counts and a possible life sentence if he is convicted.
His charges relate to drug trafficking, money laundering and firearms.
The prosecutors’ witnesses are expected to include former Guzman associates who are now co-operating with the US government in exchange for more favourable treatment.
Zambada’s brother Jesus “El Rey” Zambada and son Vicente Zambada may be included.
However, Mr Lichtman attacked their credibility.
“Why is the government going so far in this case using these gutter human beings as the evidence?” he asked.
“It’s because the conviction of Chapo Guzman is the biggest prize this prosecution could ever dream of.”
Mr Lichtman urged jurors to “keep an open mind” and consider that both Mexican and US law enforcement could be corrupt.
“They work together when it suits them, Mayo (Zambada) and the United States government,” he said.
Mr Lichtman also strove to humanise the defendant, describing his childhood selling oranges, cheese and bread door to door in a poor village.
Guzman has escaped from maximum security prisons in Mexico twice.
He has been kept in solitary confinement in Manhattan and his trial is surrounded by extraordinary security measures, with jurors escorted to and from court by armed federal marshals.
Prosecutors argue that during his time at the helm of Sinaloa, the cartel smuggled around 154,000 kilograms of cocaine into the US, as well as heroin and methamphetamine – earning them $14bn dollars.
The trial is expected to last four months.
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