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Security & Strategic Review - November 2018

Mexico: El Chapo on trial in New York

Almost two years after he was extradited to the US, the trial of Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, the head of the Sinaloa cartel, has begun in New York.

El Chapo is widely considered to have led the most powerful criminal organisation in the Americas, and his trial will not surprisingly involve special security measures. After a history of dramatic captures and escapes from Mexican prisons the drug ‘kingpin’ was finally extradited to the US in January 2017 to face a 17-count indictment. The charges include organised crime, murder, and drug trafficking. On 7 November 12 New Yorkers and six alternates were chosen to form the jury in the Brooklyn District Court of Judge Brian Cogan.

The jury will remain anonymous, but some background information is known. There are seven women and five men; three are immigrants, three are Spanish speakers, and some have family ties to law enforcement. A number of would-be-jurors asked to be excused duty because of fears for their safety. Those who have been selected to serve will be escorted into and out of the courthouse by armed federal marshals. The prosecution says that under El Chapo’s leadership the Sinaloa cartel directed massive illegal shipments of drugs including heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine into the US. It adds that the protection of jurors is necessary because El Chapo has a history of intimidating and even ordering the murder of potential witnesses. Defence lawyers said those claims were unfounded; they added that they were “satisfied with the jury that has been selected”. Judge Cogan warned the selected jurors not to talk about the case. He said he would see them again “for what I believe will be a very interesting experience for all of you”.

The trial is expected to last around four months, overlapping with the inauguration of a new government in Mexico (1 December). It is important on a number of levels, one of which is the degree to which it may be linked to current levels of cartel faction-fighting and violence. A report published in April this year by the University of San Diego concluded that “a significant portion of Mexico’s increases in violence from 2015 through 2017 were related to inter- and intra-organisational conflicts among rival drug traffickers in the wake of Guzmán’s re-arrest in 2016”.

The implication is that witness statements in the trial may be perceived as acts of loyalty or betrayal by different factions of the fragmented Sinaloa cartel, and could trigger new rounds of violent infighting. Speculation on who may testify has continued. Near the top of the list are Pedro and Margarito Flores, two brothers who ran Sinaloa’s drug distribution operation in Chicago for a decade and are currently serving 14-year sentences. In 2008 they began cooperating with the US authorities; in 2009 their father was murdered in what was thought to be a reprisal ordered by El Chapo. Another potential witness is Vicente Zamblada Niebla, also imprisoned on drug charges in the US, and someone who later admitted acting as an informant for the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). He is the son of Ismael ‘El Mayo’ Zamblada García, reputedly the long-serving number two to El Chapo and currently the leader of one of the main Sinaloa factions. Other potential witnesses include Damaso ‘El Licenciado’ López Núñez (a former government official who helped El Chapo in one of his jail escapes and then became responsible for Sinaloa finances).

Most analysts agree that El Mayo, now 70 years old, is still a powerful figure in Sinaloa, controlling significant resources. An investigation by Bloomberg news agency suggests that the cartel has been securing revenues of US$11bn a year from drug sales in the US, and that El Mayo may have personally netted US$3bn of that since 2001. DEA sources say the Sinaloa Cartel has invested in around 250 companies, many of which continue in operation. This business network stretches from Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa state, to Panama, Honduras, and Colombia. El Mayo is credited with diversifying the cartel’s operations, securing supplies of precursor chemicals from China for the manufacture of synthetic drugs sold into the US. Bryce Pardo, a researcher at Rand Corporation, highlights Sinaloa’s use of fentanyl, a synthetic drug that is often mixed with heroin. “It seems like China is the primary source, at least with regards to the precursors, if not the finished product itself. The Mexican cartels have been involved with trafficking the finished products across the border” he told Bloomberg. Putting all these factors together, the incoming government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador will face major challenges to achieve its aim of beginning to reduce cartel violence: in that sense the Sinaloa story is far from over.