Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman sentenced to life in prison
A federal judge in Brooklyn handed down the sentence Wednesday, five months after the Sinaloa cartel chief’s conviction in an epic case that also highlighted Chicago’s role in his epic drug-trafficking empire.
NEW YORK — The Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera has been sentenced to life behind bars in a U.S. prison, a humbling end for a drug lord once notorious for his ability to kill, bribe or tunnel his way out of trouble.
A federal judge in Brooklyn handed down the sentence Wednesday, five months after Guzman’s conviction in an epic drug-trafficking case.
The 62-year-old, who ran the brutal Sinaloa cartel and had been protected in Mexico by an army of gangsters and an elaborate corruption operation, was brought to the United States to be prosecuted after twice escaping from Mexican prisons.
Before he was sentenced, Guzman complained about the conditions of his confinement and told the judge he had been denied a fair trial. He said U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan failed to thoroughly investigate claims of juror misconduct.
“My case was stained, and you denied me a fair trial when the whole world was watching,” Guzman said in court through an interpreter. “When I was extradited to the United States, I expected to have a fair trial. But what happened was exactly the opposite.”
The harsh sentence was preordained. The guilty verdict in February at the end of Guzman’s 11-week trial triggered a mandatory sentence of life without parole.
The evidence showed that, under Guzman’s orders, the Sinaloa cartel was responsible for smuggling mountains of cocaine and other drugs into the United States, much of that routed through Chicago, during his 25-year reign, prosecutors said in court papers recapping the trial. They also said his “army of sicarios” was under orders to kidnap, torture and murder anyone who got in his way.
Guzman’s defense argued he was framed by other traffickers who became government witnesses so they could get breaks in their own cases.
Guzman largely has been cut off from the outside world since his extradition in 2017 and his remarks in the courtroom Wednesday could be the last time the public hears from him.
He thanked his family for giving him “the strength to bare this torture that I have been under for the past 30 months.”
Wary of his history of escaping from Mexican prisons, U.S. authorities have kept him in solitary confinement in an ultra-secure unit at a Manhattan jail and under close guard at his appearances at the Brooklyn courthouse where his case unfolded.
Experts say he likely will wind up at the federal government’s “Supermax” prison in Florence, Colorado, known as the “Alcatraz of the Rockies.” Most inmates there are given a television, but their only actual view of the outside world is through a four-inch window. They have minimal interaction with other people and eat all their meals in their cells.
While the trial was dominated by Guzman’s persona as a near-mythic outlaw who carried a diamond-encrusted handgun and stayed a step ahead of the law, the jury never heard from Guzman except when he told the judge he wouldn’t testify.
But evidence presented at his trial suggested that his decision to stay quiet was against his nature: Cooperating witnesses told jurors he was a fan of his own rags-to-riches narco story, always eager to find an author or screenwriter to tell it. He famously gave an interview to American actor Sean Penn while he was a fugitive, hiding in the mountains after accomplices built a long tunnel to help him escape from a Mexican prison.
There also were reports Guzman was itching to testify in his own defense until his attorneys talked him out of it, making his sentencing a last chance to seize the spotlight.
At the trial, Guzman’s lawyers argued he was the fall guy for other kingpins who were better at paying off top Mexican politicians and law enforcement officials to protect them while the U.S. government looked the other way.
Prosecution descriptions of an empire that paid for private planes, beachfront villas and a private zoo were a fallacy, his lawyers say. And the chances the U.S. government could collect on a roughly $12.5 billion forfeiture order are zero, they add.
The government’s case, defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman said recently, was “all part of a show trial.”
In May, a judge in Chicago sentenced Vicente “El Vicentillo” Zambada-Niebla, the Sinaloa cartel’s onetime logistics guru who testified against “El Chapo,” to 15 years in prison.
Zambada-Niebla coordinated trains, ships, submarines and even Boeing 747s as they moved cocaine and heroin from South America to Mexico for El Chapo. He also supervised Pedro Flores and Margarito Flores, twin brothers who brought up to 2,000 kilograms of cocaine a month into Chicago and other major U.S. cities.
Pedro Flores also was among those who turned on El Chapo after being caught, cooperating with federal authorities and testifying against him.
In April, another Sinaloa lieutenant, Jesus Raul Beltran Leon, pleaded guilty in Chicago to drug conspiracy for his role in the sale of 46 kilograms of cocaine sold in Los Angeles in June 2013.
Beltran Leon, who didn’t make a deal with prosecutors, faces a maximum of life in prison when he’s sentenced — that’s set for Aug. 5 in Chicago.