Secret tunnels of notorious drug lord El Chapo
Through a maze of narrow underground tunnels, bloodthirsty drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman trafficked billions of dollars-worth of cocaine from Mexico to the United States, prosecutors told a New York court today.
Jurors took a virtual tour through a secret passageway equipped with electric lights, stretching from Mexico to an Arizona warehouse just two blocks from a US Customs Office, where the floor under a pool table lifted with a hydraulic system to reveal the hidden tunnel.
The structures was just high enough for a 1.8m-tall (5ft 8in) person to walk through with their head slightly bent - perfect for El Chapo, whose nickname means "shorty" because he stands just 1.7m-tall (5ft 6in).
A LINE FOR EVERYONE IN AMERICA
The authorities say piles of cocaine were wheeled through the passages on carts. They claim the infamous drug lord smuggled enough cocaine "for 328 million lines" - more than one for every person in the United States.
The first witness, Retired US Customs Agent Carlos Salazar, said officials were shocked at the sophistication of the tunnels, using heavy tools to smash their way in on the Mexican side, before realising they could open it by twisting a water faucet.
After allegedly running the largest criminal cartel in the world, Guzman was arrested in Mexico in 2014. He twice escaped from prison in the country, once in a laundry cart and the second time through a similar tunnel dug through to his prison shower.
His extradition was approved in October 2016, and he has been held in solitary confinement in New York since he was moved to the US early last year.
This week, the man labelled the biggest drug trafficker since Colombia's Pablo Escobar finally went on trial at the US Federal Court in Brooklyn.
He faces 11 trafficking, firearms and money laundering charges that could see him incarcerated for the rest of his life in a maximum security US prison if he is convicted.
Prosecutors claim that from 1989 to 2014, he presided over the Sinaloa cartel as it smuggled 154,626 kilograms of cocaine into the US, as well as heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana, raking in $14 billion.
THE MYTH OF EL CHAPO
The complex case is set to drag on for months, and become one of the most expensive trials in US history. Guzman's defence has already shown it will be playing hardball.
His lawyer Jeffrey Lichtman told jurors on the first day of the trial that US prosecutors had dreamed "for decades" of convicting "this mythical El Chapo figure", a figure so notorious he has been compared to Robin Hood and Al Capone.
Mr Lichtman said law enforcement agents had asked his client to autograph $100 bills for them.
The prosecution demanded the defence's entire opening statements on Tuesday be thrown out for being filled with "improper argument" and "inadmissable hearsay".
While US District Judge Brian Cogan stopped short of that, he reprimanded Guzman's lawyer for an opening that went "far afield of direct or circumstantial proof".
Mr Lichtman said Guzman was not the real leader of the Sinaloa cartel, attempting to shift blame on to another senior member of the shady organisation, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada.
The lawyer said Zambada remained on the loose because of hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes paid to Mexican officials all the way up to the current and former presidents.
A second witness, Zambada's brother Jesus, said on the witness stand in Brooklyn that Guzman once directed him to give $100,000, along with a hug, to a general in the state of Guerrero.
The former cartel member said his brother and Guzman led the Sianola cartel as it imported large shipments of Colombian cocaine by land, sea and air to Mexico before using various means to get it to the US market. Drugs were often stashed in containers hidden inside gas tanker trucks filled with fuel, he said.
Jesus ran a cartel warehouse in Mexico City that processed 80 to 100 tons of cocaine a year, a volume that that brought in "billions" in revenue. Through bribes, he said, he "controlled the airport in Mexico City ... controlled the authority."
As cocaine was moved north, its profit potential skyrocketed, from $3,000-a-kilo in Colombia to $20,000 in Los Angeles, $25,000 in Chicago and $35,000 in New York City, he said.
But Mr Litchman said prisoners like Jesus were liars and murderers who would "make your skin crawl" and would say anything to get out of jail.
The defence lawyer described the prosecution as "infecting" the US with "degenerates" as witnesses "because El Chapo is the biggest prize this prosecution has ever dreamed of."
He told the jury: "This is a case that will require you to throw out much of what you were taught to believe in about the way governments work and how they behave, governments in South and Central American and Mexico and even the United States.
"This is a case which will require you to open your minds to the possibility that government officials at the very highest level can be bribed, can conspire to commit horrible crimes - that American law enforcement agents can also be crooked."
A spokesman for Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto called the allegations "complete false and defamatory", while former president Felipe Calderon dismissed them as "absolutely false and reckless."
"Mr Guzman was somebody who enjoyed the publicity," said Mr Lichtman - a legendary New York lawyer who helped keep mob boss John Gotti Jr out of jail. "He enjoyed the notoriety.
"The truth is he (Guzman) controlled nothing, Mayo Zambada did."
He said the drug baron was the "scapegoat" of the cartel, and a government that wanted to keep taking bribes.
'MONEY, DRUGS, MURDER … A GLOBAL NARCO EMPIRE'
Prosecutors have branded El Chapo a ruthless criminal boss who murdered in cold blood. They have spent years assembling their case, accumulating more than 300,000 pages and at least 117,000 recordings.
"Money, drugs, murder; a vast global narcotics trafficking organisation. That is what this trial is about and that is what the evidence in this case will prove," Assistant US Attorney Adam Fels told the court.
Guzman, he alleged in his opening statements, had his "own private army" of hundreds of armed men, as well a diamond-encrusted pistol branded with his initials and a gold-plated AK-47.
The prosecution alleges he ordered or committed at least 33 homicides. "You'll see how Guzman pulls the trigger," Mr Fels told jurors. "He was indeed the boss of his organisation."
Prosecutors promised to lay out "this global narco empire" through his text messages and letters, and from witnesses who will describe how El Chapo would receive $10 million from a single shipment of cocaine.
More than a dozen of those expected to testify are in witness protection programs or in jail.
Guzman's beauty queen wife Emma Coronel, with whom he has been banned from having any direct contact or communication, was at court.
The trial continues.