Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 21 May 2019

Inside El Chapo's trial is like a Narcos plot with cocaine kingpins and tell-all mistresses

With day-after-day of explosive testimony, narco tourists travelled across the country to catch a glimpse

The US Federal Courthouse in Brooklyn where Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is standing trial. AFP
The US Federal Courthouse in Brooklyn where Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is standing trial. AFP

For 11 weeks an extraordinary drug trial has played out in a Brooklyn courtroom. The stories of daring prison escapes, grisly murders and cash transfers on the scale of small South American countries are worthy of a TV crime drama.

So it is no surprise that among the benches of lawyers and journalists covering the trial of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman has been a new audience: The narco tourist.

“I’ve watched all the TV shows and the thought of seeing El Chapo himself in the flesh was too good to miss,” said Brian, from New Jersey, who asked that his full name not be used as he had skipped a day of work to visit the trial.

He said it was the first trial he had attended and it was worth getting to the courthouse at 6 am in order to secure a seat for the 9.30am start.

“I can only really manage the one day,” he added, “but you feel like you want to come back and see what happens next.”

El Chapo
Assistant US Attorney Amanda Liskamm points at the accused Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman while delivering rebuttal during the trial. Reuters

He made his visit in early January when he heard law enforcement officials describe how they managed to “flip” Mr Guzman’s communications chief. They played the court intercepted phone calls in which the defendant could be heard directing cartel associates.

“Once you have them tied up and such, we’ll check it out to make sure we don’t execute innocent people,” he said in a 2011 conversation, according to prosecutors.

Demand for seats was particularly intense last week as the prosecution and defence gave their closing arguments. Journalists and observers arrived before 4 am to ensure they were inside the eighth-floor courtroom of Judge Brian Cogan rather than the overflow facility across the corridor where proceedings are broadcast on CCTV.

The trial began in November when Mr Guzman faced 17 counts of drug trafficking, criminal enterprise and laundering the proceeds. They were later reduced to 10 charges and relate to his time as the alleged head of the Sinaloa drug cartel.

The jury is expected to begin considering its verdict on Monday and Mr Guzman faces life in prison if convicted.

It comes at the end of a dramatic case. The testimony – delivered by a cocaine kingpin from Colombia, a former mistress and co-operating witnesses living in protection programmes... among others – contained enough plotlines to fill season after season of the hit Netflix drama Narcos.

The details included secret smuggling tunnels under the Mexican border, tonnes of cocaine hidden in chilli cans, and allegations that senior police officers and a former president were bribed. The jury also heard how Mr Guzman repeatedly evaded capture, once fleeing naked into a passage hidden beneath a hotel clutching the hand of his mistress as Mexican marines approached.

Proceedings have been conducted amid the sort of tight security familiar from New York’s big mob trials. Armed guards stand at the courthouse entrance and observers must pass through two layers of security. Their names are taken at the courtroom door and large electronic items are forbidden.

The reward for the early starts and extra scrutiny are the inside story on the legend of El Chapo and his surrounding cast of characters.

Emma Coronel Aispuro, his wife, has been a regular in the second row of the public gallery. She has betrayed little emotion as the case against her husband was laid out, even on the day when her husband’s mistress took the stand to deliver a tearful account of their on-off three-year affair.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on January 14, 2019, Emma Coronel Aispuro, wife of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, arrives at the US Federal Courthouse in Brooklyn, New York. Accused Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is an "excellent father, friend, brother, son and partner," his young wife said as his landmark trial in New York wound up. "Everything that has been said in court about Joaquin, the good and the bad, has done nothing to change how I think about him after years of knowing him," Emma Coronel, 29, said in a message on her Instagram account late Thursday, January 31, 2019. In his almost three-month-long trial, Guzman, the 69-year-old former head of the Sinaloa drugs cartel known widely as El Chapo, or Shorty, was accused of smuggling hundreds of tons of drugs into the United States over the past quarter-century. / AFP / Don EMMERT
Emma Coronel Aispuro, wife of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, arrives at the US Federal Courthouse in Brooklyn, New York. AFP

Ms Coronel’s confidence and composure impressed Joaquin Martinez, a 55-year-old Mexican who has lived in New York for more than a decade.

“I could smell her perfume,” he told the Associated Press.

But seeing El Chapo, a man who evaded police and international law enforcement agencies for so many decades, was rather confounding.

“It took me a couple of seconds to realise it was him. To be honest, he looked like... a regular person,” he said.

Not all of the case has been compelling. At times, the evidence has sounded like someone reading a telephone directory as investigators deliver the nuts and bolts needed to hold together their allegations. Last week, jurors gazed at the clock as prosecutors attempted to distil their weeks of evidence into a closing statement that listed name after name and date after date.

But even a glimpse of such a notorious figure is worth it.

“Everyone back home is jealous — they can’t believe I’m at the El Chapo trial,” Greg Gold, a lawyer from Denver, told The New York Times recently. “It’s better entertainment than ‘Les Mis.’”

Updated: February 2, 2019 11:03 AM

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