It was a long time coming, but notorious Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman finally walked into an American courtroom Friday to face charges that he was the murderous architect of a three-decade-long web of violence, corruption and drug addiction in the United States.
As he was taken before a federal judge, prosecutors announced they were seeking a $14 billion forfeiture from Guzman, who arrived overnight after the sudden decision by Mexican authorities to grant his extradition to the United States.
"Today marks a milestone in our pursuit of Chapo Guzman,'' said Robert Capers, the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn. "He's a man known for a life of crime, violence, death and destruction, and now he'll have to answer for that.''
As boss of the Sinaloa drug cartel, Guzman presided over a syndicate that shipped tons of heroin and cocaine to the U.S., using tanker trucks, planes with secret landing strips, container ships, speedboats and even submarines, prosecutors said. Perhaps most famously, Guzman's cartel built elaborate tunnels under the U.S. border to transport drugs, according to Wifredo Ferrer, the U.S. attorney in Miami.
The cartel made billions of dollars in profits -- hence prosecutors' bid for a $14 billion forfeiture -- and employed hit men who carried out murders, kidnappings and acts of torture, according to prosecutors. The Sinaloa smugglers also helped fuel an epidemic of drug abuse in the U.S. in the 1980s and '90s, the prosecutors said.
Guzman was recaptured a year ago in Mexico after escaping from a maximum-security prison for a second time. The episode was highly embarrassing for President Enrique Pena Nieto's government, and Mexican officials were seen as eager to hand him off to the U.S.
By finally bringing their case in the Eastern District of New York, prosecutors chose that city over Chicago and other jurisdictions that have long hoped to put Guzman on trial.
“After the tunneling into a maximum security prison which had to have the involvement of government officials, that was a huge embarrassment for the government of Mexico,” said Thomas Shakeshaft, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago. “There was still a chance that he was running the cartel behind bars, but this is a symbolic victory both for the government of Mexico, and the United States.”
The Chicago case did carry a big plus, or perhaps more accurately, two of them. Two brothers, Pedro and Margarito Flores, who had been the prime distributors for Guzman’s Sinoloa cartel in Chicago, had agreed to cooperate with authorities and would have been the chief witnesses in a Chicago trial. It isn’t clear if the two will still be called in the New York case.
“It took ten years to get Osama bin Laden,” notes Shakeshaft, who spent years developing the Chicago prosecution. “It took more than that to get to Chapo, but ultimately we did!”
The Drug Enforcement Administration flew Guzman to New York from the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez on Thursday, hours before the inauguration of President Donald Trump, who has criticized Mexico for sending the U.S. "criminals and rapists'' and vowed to build a wall at the Mexican border.
When Guzman got off the plane, "as you looked into his eyes, you could see the surprise, you could see the shock, and to a certain extent, you could see the fear, as the realization kicked in that he's about to face American justice,'' said Angel Melendez, who leads U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's homeland security investigations in New York.
The U.S. has been trying to obtain custody of Guzman since he was first indicted in California in the early 1990s. Now in his late 50s, he faces the possibility of life in a U.S. prison.
Prosecutors had to agree to not seek the death penalty as a condition of the extradition. While he faces federal charges in several U.S. states, federal prosecutors in Brooklyn won the jockeying to get the case. The U.S. attorney's office there has substantial experience prosecuting international drug cartel cases and was once led by outgoing U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
After breaking out of prison the first time in 2001, Guzman spent more than a decade at large, becoming something of a folk legend among some Mexicans for his defiance of authorities. He was immortalized in ballads known as "narco-corridos."
Captured in 2014, Guzman then made an even more audacious escape, coolly stepping into a hole in the floor of his prison cell shower and whizzing to freedom on a motorcycle modified to run on tracks laid the length of the tunnel.
While on the run, he secretly met with actors Sean Penn and Kate del Castillo in a fall 2015 encounter that Penn later chronicled in Rolling Stone magazine.
In Penn's article, Guzman was unapologetic about his criminal activities, saying he had turned to drug trafficking at age 15 because it was "the only way to have money to buy food, to survive.''
The piece was published shortly after Mexican marines rearrested Guzman in a January 2016 shootout that killed five of his associates and wounded one marine.