NEW YORK — Prosecutors at the trial of Mexican drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera rested their case Monday, ending a monumental, 10-week presentation that included dozens of surveillance photos, hundreds of intercepted text messages, testimony from 56 witnesses, countless bricks of seized cocaine — and even, at one point, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
Few legal proceedings have featured evidence as exhaustive — and exhausting — as Guzmán’s trial, which began in November under tight security in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, has. But the prosecution’s case ended at 3:40 p.m. Monday when Gina Parlovecchio, a member of the team, told Judge Brian M. Cogan: “The government rests, your honor.”
Moments later, in a rare address to the court, Guzmán informed Cogan that he would not take the stand in his own defense, ending days of speculation about whether he would defy precedent — and the advice of his lawyers — and testify. The kingpin’s legal team said it planned to mount a minimal defense Tuesday, setting up the possibility that after summations, jurors could start deliberating as early as Friday.
Alejandro Edda, the actor who plays Guzmán, best known as El Chapo, on the Netflix series “Narcos: Mexico” was in the room as the government concluded its case with a detailed description of the nearly mile-long tunnel that the drug lord used to escape from prison (for the second time) in 2015. When the kingpin was brought to the defense table Monday morning and his lawyers told him Edda had come to watch the day’s events, Guzmán broke into a smile from ear to ear and waved at his television namesake.
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It was a fitting end to the circuslike extravaganza. From the start, the heart of the government’s case was the operatic cast of cooperating witnesses who were called to testify against the defendant, providing the first public glimpse of his trafficking operation, the Sinaloa drug cartel.
The parade began nearly three months ago with Jesus Zambada García, who once ran the crime lord’s turf in Mexico City and offered jurors a master class on the cartel’s financing, logistics and key personnel. The final cooperating witness was Isaias Valdez Rios, an assassin who Monday described his own and the defendant’s brutal acts of violence.
In between, like something out of a Dickens novel, Guzmán was confronted by an endless stream of other figures from his past: his chief Colombian cocaine supplier; his top American distributor; the son of his partner and heir apparent to his empire; one of his personal secretaries; the 5-foot-4, 20-something IT expert who custom built his encrypted cellphone network; and the much younger mistress with whom he escaped from the Mexican marines — naked — through a tunnel dug beneath a bathtub in his safe house.
As if that were not enough, prosecutors also called to the stand several law enforcement and forensic experts — among them, an Ecuadorean prosecutor, members of the Colombian national police, a military officer from the Dominican Republic and various agents from the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and Homeland Security Investigations. There was even a fourth-generation handwriting analyst whose great-grandfather worked on the Charles Lindbergh baby kidnapping case.
The combined testimony of these witnesses was devastating. They described how, for nearly 30 years, Guzmán moved tons of drugs from Central America to Mexico — and then to the United States and Canada — through a mind-boggling variety of methods: speedboats, tuna-fishing boats, carbon-fiber airplanes designed to evade radar, helicopters, passenger cars, cargo trains, semi-submersible submarines, tractor-trailers packed with cans of jalapeños and yet another tunnel (hidden under a pool table).
The witnesses also accused the crime lord of paying off almost every level of the Mexican police, military and political establishment, including an alleged $100 million bribe to one of the country’s former presidents, Enrique Peña Nieto. Guzmán was said to have ordered the deaths of dozens of his rivals, enemies and informants, and to have armed himself with a gold-plated AK-47, a camouflage patterned M-16 and at least three diamond-encrusted pistols, one with his initials on the handle. He personally killed at least three people, witnesses said, and then ordered his men to bury one of them alive and to dispose of the other two bodies in a bonfire.
Beyond helping prosecutors substantiate the 11 counts in Guzmán’s indictment, witnesses painted a complicated portrait of the man himself. They told jurors how he rose from being a poor campesino in the village of La Tuna in the Sierra Madre mountains to become a billionaire narco lord with a $10 million beach house, a fleet of private jets, a yacht he named for himself and a personal zoo. By the end of the government’s case, jurors had heard stories about Guzmán’s temper, grace under pressure, bottomless libido, workaholic nature, love of the limelight and obsession with spying on everyone around him. They learned about his failed vanity movie project and even got to see a video of his underwear drawer.
Prosecutors were able to assemble all of this because many have worked on the Guzmán case for a decade or more. Well before the kingpin was extradited from Mexico two years ago to stand trial in New York, he was already facing six separate indictments filed in six separate federal judicial districts.
As one of the world’s biggest drug traffickers, Guzmán presented a unique target. And, with some notable exceptions, building one of the world’s biggest drug trafficking cases against him required a unique level of collaboration. The charges brought against the crime lord drew upon the work of the FBI, the DEA, Homeland Security, the Narcotics and Dangerous Drug Section of the Justice Department, and U.S. attorney’s offices in New York, Chicago, Miami, San Diego and El Paso, Texas.
When Adam Fels, a prosecutor from Miami, gave the government’s opening statement on Nov. 13, he made it sound as if a single, seamless case had been brought against Guzmán. But once the government rested, it was clear that there was never only one case against the kingpin, but rather there were several sewn together in a kind of patchwork quilt.
This collage of a case was ultimately tried in Brooklyn on the orders of Loretta Lynch, the U.S. attorney general in the Barack Obama administrationwho had previously served as Brooklyn’s top federal prosecutor. It was so extensive that testimony from any one individual witness might have been enough to convict Guzmán. The amount of testimony was so excessive that Cogan cautioned prosecutors more than once from engaging in overkill.
Last week, Guzman’s lawyers notified the government that they were putting their client’s name on a list of potential defense witnesses. While the move was largely pro forma, it set up the tantalizing possibility that the kingpin would do what Al Capone and the Mafia boss John Gotti never did: take the stand and tell his own story.
But as court proceedings ended Monday, Guzmán told Cogan he would not take the stand.
“Your honor,” he said, “me and my attorneys have spoken about this and I will reserve.”
“Reserve?” Cogan asked.
“Yes,” Guzmán answered. “I will not testify.”