The main attraction at the federal court in Brooklyn over the past three months has been the chance to get within a few feet of the man they call El Chapo – real name Joaquin Guzman. He is the drug lord whose tales of prison escapes and smuggling tunnels have made him the dark star of his universe. Journalists, fans and tourists have been arriving from as early as 2am in sub-zero temperatures to get in line. On a typical day, only the first 25 or so would make it into the courtroom to see him in the flesh. The next 40 would find space in an overflow room and watch proceedings on TV. The rest were turned away.
Prosecutors claimed Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel has made $14bn trafficking cocaine, marijuana, heroin and crystal meth to Americans – making this, by their estimate, the biggest narcotics trial in US history. After they had called an overkill of 56 witnesses, including 14 of the kingpin’s former cohorts, and played wiretapped calls and videos, the defence scarcely bothered to mount a rebuttal. Barring an extraordinary rebellion by the jury, Guzman is expected to spend the rest of his life in one of America’s harshest prisons.
For me, being in the court for some of the trial conjured mixed emotions. Like everyone else, I got a rush from being so close to the man in the dock. He looked remarkably relaxed. His voice and body language were identical to that of a cousin of his I had met when I went to Guzman’s home of La Tuna, a rugged village in Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains. They both spoke in a singsong tone and had wide, active eyes that seemed to show an innate intelligence beneath their folksy, campesino manners. They were both short and stocky, the reason for Guzman’s El Chapo nickname, which most translate as “Shorty”.
I wondered why Guzman even went to trial, rather than plead guilty, when he seemed to have so little hope of winning. Most Latin American traffickers, including those who testified against him, make deals to shave off time, or get softer prison terms in exchange for testimony. Guzman acts like a showman and I wondered if he wanted to put on a show for the world. But his defence lawyer Eduardo Balarezo, told me otherwise. “He had nothing to lose,” Balarezo said. “He wasn’t offered any kind of deal.”
One day, a builder and his wife sat next to me in court, having flown all the way from San Francisco for the spectacle. Julio and Carmen Valencia were staring and starstruck. They were originally from drug producing areas of Mexico and echoed what many there said about Guzman, that he was a Robin Hood figure who gave to the poor. “He helps many people. He gives them work, pays for roads,” Julio said. “He is not an idol. But he is from our land.”
I had been hearing Guzman’s name since I began reporting in Mexico as a hungry young journalist in 2001, the year he escaped from a high security prison in a laundry cart. Over my 18 years of covering Latin America, the legend of Guzman grew and grew.
That legend could be both wild and comical, as testimony from the cooperating witnesses at his trial showed. A former lover, Lucero Sanchez, recalled a time Guzman jumped out of bed and fled naked into a tunnel to evade capture. Federal agents described how he trucked cocaine into the United States in cans of chili peppers, getting Colombian suppliers to package the drugs in tubes rather than the usual bricks.
A video of Guzman was played to the court that had been addressed to the actor Sean Penn and the Mexican soap star Kate del Castillo, and published by Rolling Stone. The three had met in the mountains when he was on the run and had their picture taken together. It shows Guzman serene in a flashy blue shirt, and Penn and Del Castillo on either side with goofy grins.
In the video, Guzman says the tradition of producing narcotics was passed to him by his ancestors and he got involved when he was 15. That would have been in the early 1970s, just as Richard Nixon declared the war on drugs. “The way… to be able to buy food, to survive, is to grow [opium] poppy and marijuana, and from that age I began to grow it, to harvest it, and to sell it,” he told the camera. (The court barely heard him talk in person, since he declined to speak in his defence.)
Such tales have spawned immense TV interest, which has in turn spread his story to a global audience. There are now multiple El Chapo documentaries and two Netflix dramatisations, El Chapo and Narcos. When the actor who plays him in the latter came into the court, Guzman looked over and smiled.
Some of the American news coverage reflected this fascination with the exotic and surreal. A TV reporter at the trial told me it all provided light relief from the divisive political issues that dominate US media in the Trump era.
But, watching the trial, mostly I felt sad. Putting aside the wild stories and the entertainment, the drug war in Mexico has been a humanitarian catastrophe. In the last decade, the nation has suffered more than 200,000 murders, most believed to be at the hands of drug cartel hitmen, known as sicarios, working alongside the police and soldiers who are assigned to fight them but too often work with them. (The court heard how the Sinaloa Cartel would bribe Mexican officials at every level, right up to a president.)
Witnesses described how Guzman personally took part in murders. Many other killings were carried out in his name. At one scene in Nuevo Laredo in 2012, there were 14 bodies hung from meat hooks, along with a note signed: “Attentively, Chapo. Remember I am your real daddy.”
Perhaps most importantly, Guzman was a key player in escalating the armed conflict in Mexico, which caused wider devastation. He could be seen as a war criminal if it were to be understood as a war. From the early 2000s, his Sinaloa Cartel battled a rival crime group called the Zetas, who were led by Mexican special forces defectors. The Sinaloa Cartel responded by transforming its own sicarios into paramilitary units, equipped with assault riles and grenade launchers.
Guzman’s ambitions led these death squads into some of the bloodiest battles of all, in the border cities of Nuevo Laredo, Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana and in his own home state of Sinaloa. What had been a story of cops and criminals became a story of real armed conflict with massacres, mass graves and refugees.
As I reported on this bloodshed, I saw things that I could never have imagined. First, it was the corpses on the street, ripped apart by bullets from ambushers who would spray upwards of 500 rounds into their prey. Then it was bodies that were mutilated, decapitated. The numbers kept increasing, as if the cartels were raising the stakes at poker and nobody would pull out. In 2012, I found myself in a morgue in Monterrey with 49 bodies that been dumped on a road, all with their heads, hands and feet cut off.
The violence kept on relentlessly. In 2017, I wandered round a mass grave where the body parts of more than 250 people had been unearthed. It ran up to a middle-class housing estate, and when it was being dug up, the families complained of the smell of decaying flesh seeping into their yards.
Perhaps the loved ones of those who disappeared suffer even more than those who have died; they have no closure. Maria de Lourdes Rosales has been searching for five years for her son, a customs worker who was abducted by a group of gunmen. “You live with great pain every day,” she said. “You are missing something in your life, in your heart, in your soul, and your only goal is finding them.”
In total, the Mexican government has records of more than 40,000 people who have disappeared, it revealed this past week.
Since 2000, more than 100 journalists have been murdered in Mexico, including two I have known personally. One of them, Javier Valdez, was an inspiring writer from Guzman’s state of Sinaloa, who generously shared stories of his homeland with me in long drinking sessions in a cantina near the offices of his newspaper. In 2017, he was round the corner from there when gunmen shot him 12 times. One of the witnesses against El Chapo was asked if he was involved in that murder and denied it.
The fact that Guzman has been tried in the United States rather than Mexico has shifted the focus away from this slaughter. After he had escaped from two prisons, the Mexican government recaptured him a third time but conceded it could not hold him, and sent him north. After much debate among the US prosecutors, they decided to focus less on the murders, which happened south of the border, and concentrate instead on the charges of trafficking drugs to Americans.
El Chapo will probably spend the rest of his life in prison so perhaps it doesn’t matter what the charges are. But this has been the most high-profile trial in Mexico’s drug war so far: one might hope for wider, deeper accounting, if only for the record. Then again, a broader trial on the causes of the Mexican bloodbath would have to confront Mexican politicians who have been bribed, American gun dealers who have provided most of the weapons, and international banks that have laundered billions of dollars in drug money.
Perhaps the saddest aspect of the trial is that it hasn’t made a difference. Americans spend about $100bn a year on illegal drugs, according to a 2014 White House survey. There will always be gangsters wanting that money, and the most violent will always get the lion’s share. Last year was a record year for murders in Mexico, while Guzman was in a US cell.
Back in 1993, American agents celebrated when the cocaine king Pablo Escobar was shot dead by a elite unit of Colombian police. In 20 years we could be talking about a new super villain with a funny nickname being killed or tried.
A final irony is that Guzman might not even be the biggest drug trafficker in Mexico. The defence at his trial argued that the real leader of the Sinaloa Cartel was a trafficker named Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who is at large, with a $5m bounty from the US government on his head. To counter this, the prosecution said it didn’t matter if Guzman was the supreme head of the cartel as long as he was one of its bosses.
The bottom line is that a host of drug lords from Mexico and Colombia have broken cover or been run to ground in recent years and there is no hard evidence that Guzman is richer than the others. But he became the household name.
Ballads about El Chapo are a genre unto themselves in Mexico. Interest from journalists and filmmakers is never ending. Forbes magazine once put him on its billionaire list, worth exactly $1bn, with no explanation of how it came to that number. Chapo Guzman became the Latin American rebel of the 21st century as Che Guevara had been in the 20th.
With a name so big, American prosecutors felt they had to put on a big show. The upshot: his legend has been burnished with a roaring final chapter. While, south of the Rio Grande, the murderous drug war rages on.