El Chapo prosecutor's closing argument: 'Mountain of evidence' proves guilt

Kevin McCoy

NEW YORK – Closing arguments in the trial of alleged Mexican drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán began Wednesday with a prosecutor reprising testimony about killings "high on a mountain in Sinaloa" where "a bonfire raged."

Two alleged drug trafficking rivals lay near the fire, bloody and bruised from torture, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Goldbarg told a federal jury of seven women and five men in Brooklyn.

Guzmán, backed by other alleged members of Mexico's Sinaloa drug cartel, "leveled his rifle at one of the men, he cursed him, and he shot him," Goldbarg said. After the second man was executed in the same manner, she said, Guzmán told his men to throw the bodies "into the fire."

The chilling scene that prosecutors say occurred around 2006 showed Guzmán, now 61, at the height of a 25-year career as a senior leader of the Mexico-based yet international drug trafficking organization.

Prosecutors say he became one of the largest smugglers and sellers of Colombian-produced cocaine and other narcotics to the United States from the 1980s and into the 21st Century.

This undated handout photograph obtained from Brooklyn federal court on November 26, 2018, shows a photo of Mexican druglord Joaquin "el Chapo" Guzman, shown to the jury during his trial in Brooklyn federal court and filed as evidence by the US government. AFP PHOTO / US Department of Justice/ BROOKLYN FEDERAL COURT

"We told you this case was about drugs, about money, and about violence," Goldbarg said. "Ladies and gentlemen, we have presented a mountain of evidence" that shows "the way that this defendant brought his drugs into the United States."

Those ways included cars, trucks, trains, planes, boats, submarines, and secret tunnels beneath the Mexico-U.S. border, Goldbarg said. She said Guzmán's shipment-to-market prowess earned him admiring drug world nicknames for speed while generating billions of dollars for his cartel.

The closing argument, to be followed Thursday by Guzmán's lawyers' argument, started the final phase of the 11-week trial.

Guzman is charged with 10 criminal counts, including selling drugs, laundering money and operating a continuing criminal enterprise. If convicted of the most serious charges, he could be sentenced to prison for life.

The jury, serving anonymously for security reasons, watched and listened as prosecutors showed a PowerPoint with photos of Guzmán and other alleged cartel members. They included 14 who testified against the alleged boss in hope of winning leniency for their self-confessed drug trafficking crimes.

Supplementing the photos was a greatest hits video montage of Guzmán, including footage that prosecutors said was recorded on an alleged underling's smartphone.

It showed what prosecutors said was the alleged boss pacing back and forth in jeans and a black baseball cap while he interrogated a suspected rival drug gang member handcuffed to a post.

At the prosecution table while Goldbarg spoke was boxes of show-and-tell visual aids for the jurors: Three AK-47 assault rifles, camouflage body armor and bricks of cocaine allegedly seized from cartel shipments.

Jurors also heard or read secretly intercepted smartphone conversations and text messages that the prosecutor said featured Guzmán in his own words.

Prosecutors say he was discussing plans to send cars with hidden stashes of cocaine across the Mexico-U.S. border when he said "tell her to arrange for more cars, because I'll be bringing her a ton."

Guzmán, dressed in a dark suit and tie, sat quietly at the defense table, taking notes as a Spanish interpreter relayed the prosecutor's words.

His wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, appeared to listen intently to the translation via headphones in the courtroom's packed gallery.

Near Coronel sat the Mexican actor Alejandro Edda, who portrayed Guzmán in Netflix's Narcos: Mexico.

It was his second art-meets-real-life appearance at the trial this week. He said he'd been invited back by the defense team.

Goldbarg drew on testimony from more than 50 government witnesses in an effort to forestall the defense arguments that Guzmán was not the lone leader of the Sinaloa cartel and that the alleged crimes were not part of a unified conspiracy.

She acknowledged that the cartel had other leaders, but stressed that the continuing criminal enterprise charge required prosecutors to show only that Guzmán was a leader of the drug cartel, and that he led five or more others in criminal activities.

One self-confessed Sinaloa cartel member after another referred to Guzmán as "padrón," or leader, when they testified during the trial, she stressed.

The defense team is expected to reprise their trial strategy Thursday by characterizing the cooperating witnesses as liars who would say anything in exchange for more lenient treatment.

But Goldbarg told jurors the alleged drug lord's own words betray him.

She played what she said was a secretly intercepted audio clip of Guzmán agreeing to continue paying bribes to a corrupt Mexican police official in exchange for authorizing compliant officers to continue ignoring the cartel's illegal operations.

Witnesses claimed that Guzmán also bribed two Mexican presidents. The allegations brought angry denials from those officials.

Goldbarg asked jurors to "use common sense" to answer a series of questions. 

"Who traveled in an armored car with security guards?" Goldbarg asked. "Who has a mile-long tunnel built to the shower of his jail cell?"

Guzmán's 2015 escape from Mexico's Altiplano prison won him international notoriety.

Only a boss has these things, Goldbarg said. She told jurors "you've seen staggering evidence that shows his role in the cartel."

The prosecutor also had an answer ready for any defense or jury questions about why Guzmán was extradited to the United States for trial.

She said just one of his cocaine shipments generated an estimated $500 million of profit "at the expense of the citizens of the City of New York," and he had a drug storage location within view of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Whether from prisons, or from safe houses, Goldbarg told jurors, Guzmán always made sure he had an escape plan.

"Do not let him escape responsibility," the prosecutor said. "Hold him responsible for all his crimes. Find him guilty on all counts."

Guzmán and his wife, showing no outward sign of worry, smiled and exchanged waves as they left the courtroom for the day moments later.

Jurors are expected to begin deliberations on Friday.

U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan dealt with last-minute juror issues Wednesday before the government summation began.

The employer of one alternate juror told the court he might lose his job if he did not return to work soon, the judge said. A second alternate juror wanted to know if Guzmán was personally paying his lawyers and directing his defense team.

Cogan resolved the potential problems, leaving the jury and the trial schedule at least temporarily intact.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: El Chapo prosecutor's closing argument: 'Mountain of evidence' proves guilt