Joaquin Archivaldo Guzmán Loera has always made up for his size, even if his nickname, “El Chapo,” or Shorty, is a constant reminder of his squat, 5-feet-5-inches frame.
The diminutive drug lord, 61, made a name for himself as the undisputed king of the ruthless Sinaloa Cartel. Over the years, his organization has helped shovel thousands of tons of coke, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana into the waiting arms of American consumers. He notoriously ruled with an iron fist, and an eye for the tiniest detail.
For decades, he directed a billion-dollar enterprise, first from his mountainous stronghold in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, then, following his 1993 capture, from prison. After a 2001 escape, he kept the machine moving while on the run, hiding for 13 years in plain sight. Even after he was caught, in 2014, he wasn’t pinned down for long, shocking the world with a brazen subterranean escape.
Until he was recaptured in early 2016 — and extradited to the United States in 2017 — he seemed largely untouchable. Now, though, he’s in a tough spot.
This week, the trial against El Chapo is finally set to start in Brooklyn federal court, with jury selection set to start Monday, and opening arguments tentatively set for November 12th. The trial is expected to last anywhere from two to four months. He faces a 17-count indictment for his role as the head of the cartel, including money laundering, and firearms and murder-conspiracy charges.
And according to court documents outlining the government’s case against him — and conversations with some of the people who helped put him away — El Chapo may have finally drawn the short straw.
The trial has been repeatedly delayed, as Chapo’s defense attorneys requested the trial date be pushed back in light of the mountains of evidence being brought by the prosecution. The latest hold-up came as lawyers for the defense complained to judge Brian Cogan that a last-minute dump of some 14,000 pages of new evidence from previously unnamed cooperating witnesses (which, for effect, they hauled into the courtroom in 23 plastic binders, according to The New York Times) warranted yet another delay, as they needed time to translate it into Spanish for their client and review the evidence.
But finally, on Tuesday, Cogan had enough with both sides, whom he accused of annoying him with “panicked” phone calls about the case, according to Reuters. In a testy exchange, Cogan admonished the prosecutors for bringing more the table than they needed to convict him — including accusing him of direct involvement with at least 33 murders.
“This is a drug conspiracy case that involves murders,” Judge Cogan said, according to the Times. “I’m not going to let you try a murder conspiracy case that happens to involve drugs.”
Few Americans know El Chapo better than Andrew Hogan, the former DEA agent who helped run him down in 2014 in Mazatlan, a beach town in the state of Sinaloa.
For Hogan, who detailed his hunt for the kingpin in Hunting El Chapo, Chapo was always the target, even if he wasn’t always in the agent’s direct sights. Even when he and his partner were doing controlled money laundering for narcos in Mexico and Ecuador, he says there was awareness that at the top of the pyramid sat one man: Joaquin Guzmán.
Still, he never saw El Chapo as a white whale. “I never attached myself to him or to any of my targets. It could have been anyone,” Hogan says. “What drove me was the hunt, the challenge to capture this guy. I didn’t necessarily care who Chapo was as a person. Of course I cared about how many drugs he was moving, but I didn’t get distracted by the man, or by the legend that everybody built him up to be.”
According to Jack Riley, who was working as the DEA’s top cop in Chicago at the time of El Chapo’s 2014 capture and later rose to the agency’s number-two position in Washington, the case against Chapo has been a model for interagency cooperation.
“What Chapo counted on was law-enforcement and cops not talking to one another,” Riley says. “So when we began looking at him, it was clear we had to build relationships with our Mexican counterparts, and gather intel in Mexico as well as to understand how he operated in the U.S. And that meant a lot of cops sharing intel and information, which they had previously been hesitant to do. Everybody from small police departments to large police departments to the DEA and the FBI and ICE.”
That cooperation was especially crucial given the diverse nature of Sinaloa’s revenue streams, Riley says.
But even as he sits in solitary confinement in a cell above Manhattan, Guzmán’s legacy continues.
Guzmán made a name for himself concocting new ways of getting coke and heroin out of the fields of Colombia and Mexico and into the veins of eager customers up north. Over the years, Chapo shipped narcotics to the States in planes, trains, trucks, and submersibles, and he was a pioneer in tunneling under the border, a skill that would later help him stroll out of his maximum security prison cell in 2015. He was a brutal man, but above all else, he innovated with an agility that would make Silicon Valley proud.
Guzmán likely cannot claim sole credit for cutting heroin with fentanyl — it appeared sporadically over the years — but he certainly had an early hand in popularizing it, Riley says. An early warning of what was to come appeared first in Chicago, in 2006, when dozens of drug users suddenly overdosed on a particularly potent strain of dope that was found to be cut with fentanyl.
Overall, that fentanyl “outbreak” in the mid-2000s killed more than 1,000 people in Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and other states, according to the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services. The spread of the lethal load closely followed the distribution network that Chapo had set up, with Chicago as its hub, and a raid by Mexican authorities on a Sinaloa-linked drug lab set up to produce fentanyl helped confirm Chapo’s hand in the matter, Riley says.
“If you’re gonna give a guy like that credit, I think his research and development portfolio, the way he thought about stuff, he was ahead of everybody else,” Riley says. “He was trying to see the market and adjust to it.”
Federal prosecutors appear to be preparing a massive trove of evidence against Guzmán, including dozens of witnesses, and hundreds of thousands of pages of documents detailing his drug empire. In a pretrial memo filed last year, the government pledged to connect Guzmán to a wide range of crimes, including the wholesale corruption of the Mexican security forces and industrial-scale money laundering,
In one particularly gory paragraph, prosecutors claim a Sinaloa sicario specially outfitted a murder house with plastic sheeting for the walls and a drain specifically designed to catch blood from murder victims.
Central to the case is likely to be the testimony of a pair of bootstrapping, Chicago-born drug traffickers named Pedro and Margarito Flores, who have been under government protection for nearly a decade, ever since their decision to flip on El Chapo and flee into the arms of federal authorities in a dramatic escape that involved a desperate cross-border drive by their families.
Pedro and Margarito Flores, identical twins raised by a drug-trafficking father, built a massive trafficking network that supplied wholesale shipments of narcotics to dealers in Chicago, with the drugs spreading out across the country from there.
In unsealed grand-jury testimony, the brothers calmly detail their trafficking operation, which saw the smuggling of thousands of kilos of coke, heroin, and other drugs in trap compartments inside tractor trailers, and the creation of legitimate front companies that enabled them to make drug shipments via freight trains.
The twins moved their families to Mexico in 2003, and began working directly with associates of Guzmán in 2005, according to their grand jury testimony and court documents filed by prosecutors.
But as the years went on, they and their wives — who last year published a book about their lives as “cartel wives” — began to fear the violence associated with Chapo, especially as a war heated up between Guzmán and his rivals.
In the spring of 2008, the brothers pledged their full cooperation with the government, and proceeded to tape numerous conversations with Sinaloa lieutenants, and set up a handful of drug shipments for seizure by the authorities.
Finally, in November of 2008, they fled Mexico for the relative safety of witness protection, leaving behind millions of dollars in cash, cars and properties, prosecutors said.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Mia and Olivia Flores, the wives of Pedro and Margarito Jr., say the glamor of living large in Mexico lost its sheen as the potential danger became more and more apparent.
“It’s very easy to get addicted to that lifestyle, but it’s not worth it,” Olivia Flores says.
In addition to the millions they left behind in Mexico, and the promise of a life in witness protection looking over their shoulders for cartel sicarios upon their eventual release, the Flores twins have already paid a heavy price: their father, Margarito Flores Sr., vanished in Mexico days after crossing into the country in 2009. According to court documents, his car was found abandoned in Sinaloa with a note attached to it blaming the father’s disappearance on the actions of his sons.
But the damage to Chapo’s network had already been done. According to a sentencing memo filed by the government outlining why the Flores twins should get lighter sentences than your usual high-level drug traffickers, the brother’s testimony has led to the indictment or arrest of dozens of dealers, sicarios, traffickers and bosses from the streets of Chicago to the mountains of Sinaloa.
“I know our husbands put a dent in the drug trade, and although people get replaced, no one is going to be Chapo Guzmán,” Olivia Flores says. “No one is going to be bigger than him.”
Following his extradition to the United States, Guzmán was initially represented by taxpayer-funded federal defense attorneys, the big-league version of a public defender. But beginning in the fall of 2017, he began assembling a narco-lawyer dream team, starting with Angel Eduardo Balarezo, an Ecuadorian-American lawyer who had previously represented Chapo’s ally-turned rival Alfredo Beltran-Leyva. (Beltrán-Leyva pleaded guilty in 2016 to international drug-running charges and was sentenced in 2017 to life in prison). Joining Balarezo is Jeffrey Lichtman, whoonce represented “Teflon Don” mob boss John Gotti Jr.
Even with a team of battle-tested lawyers, It’s hard to see how Guzmán could wriggle his way out of this one. Thousands of miles from his base of support in the Sierra Madre mountains, held 23 hours a day in solitary in a heavily fortified federal lockup in Manhattan, the chances of another daring escape are slim.
His attorneys are tasked with defending a man whose decades-long run as a top drug lord is not only common knowledge, but also detailed in hundreds of thousands of pages of evidence from prosecutors and backed up by key cooperating witnesses.
Guzman’s legal team has hinted that they intend to dispute the government’s characterization of their client as the ultimate drug lord. Speaking with reporters after his first appearance on the case, Lichtman accused prosecutors of running wild with a popular image of El Chapo that doesn’t line up with reality. “This is a mythical character that they’re trying to say is the only drug dealer in the world,” Lichtman said outside Brooklyn federal court in September, according to the New York Post.
Regardless of what the lawyers’ strategy is, they have their work cut out for them, according to Riley, who is not involved in the prosecution of the case.
“It’s extremely difficult for a defense team to put together a coherent case with so much evidence,” he says. “They’ll put up a typical narco defense. You hire high-priced attorneys [who will] try to beat the government on everything they can, file motions on everything they can, they object to everything they can object to knowing full well that when the trial’s over, he’s going to jail.”
But Hogan, the DEA agent who stared Guzman in the face in a Mazatlán parking garage on the morning Mexican Marines pulled him out of bed in 2014, cautions against underestimating El Chapo.
“He’s where he belongs, but you can guarantee he’s thinking about the next step,” Hogan says. “What that is, I don’t know. But his mind’s always running.”