El Chapo defense says Sinaloa cartel bribed Mexico presidents

Joaquín 'El Chapo' Guzmán following his extradition to the United States from Mexico in January 2017

Joaquín 'El Chapo' Guzmán following his extradition to the United States from Mexico in January 2017

Prosecutors have said they will use thousands of documents, videos and recordings as evidence, including material related to drug smugglers' safe houses and Guzman's 2015 prison escape and the law enforcement operation to recapture him.

Drug baron Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's defense told his NY trial Tuesday that his Sinaloa cartel bribed presidents of Mexico hundreds of millions of dollars, painting the absent co-defendant as the real criminal.

Guzman was made a "scapegoat" by a corrupt Mexican government in an American drug war, so that the true head of the drug empire, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, can escape justice, defense attorney for the narcotics baron claimed in his opening statement in Federal District Court in Brooklyn. Zambada had bribed Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, Lichtman said, a claim that the president denied on Tuesday.

He also suggested USA law enforcement turned a blind eye to the situation. A separate tweet by ex-President Felipe Calderon called it "absolutely false and reckless".

"He's blamed for being the leader while the real leaders are living freely and openly in Mexico", attorney Jeffrey Lichtman said on the first day of Guzman's trial for drug smuggling in Brooklyn federal court, which is expected to last up to four months. Guzman has pleaded not guilty to charges that he amassed a multi-billion-dollar fortune smuggling tons of cocaine and other drugs in a vast supply chain that reached well north of the border.

Despite his diminutive stature and nickname that means "Shorty", Guzman was once a larger-than-life figure in Mexico who has been compared to Al Capone and Robin Hood and been the subject of ballads called narcocorridos.

At the trial he appeared in a dark suit and tie as he listened to Fels describe how he started modestly in the early 1970s by selling marijuana in Mexico, but built his reputation by constructing tunnels across the Mexico-US border to transport marijuana and cocaine so fast that he was "no longer El Chapo, the short one".

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, surrounded by US Marshals, waves to his wife as he enters the courtroom.

Instead of replacing the nervous juror with one of the alternates, lawyers on both sides agreed to select a fresh one, which they'll do Tuesday morning. Before his tunnels, it had taken weeks to move drugs across the border to the US.

NEW YORK - During the height of Mexican drug wars in 1993, an attempted hit on Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman went wrong.

The prosecutor spoke of two dramatic escapes from prison by Guzman and said he was planning a third when he was brought to the U.S. He escaped again in 2015 through a mile-long tunnel dug into a shower in his jail cell that he slipped into before fleeing on a motorcycle.

"Why does the Mexican government need a scapegoat?"

Fels said Guzman used some of his wealth to pay off the Mexican military and police and to finance assault rifles, grenade launchers and explosives to engage in "war after bloody war". He accused the defendant of personally shooting two men and having their bodies burned.

Seven women and five men were selected Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018, as jurors in the case against Guzman.

The evidence will include the testimony of more than a dozen cooperating witnesses who prosecutors say are risking retribution.

An email written by a USA agent who eavesdropped on Guzman for a year wrote, "Chapo was more of a myth than an actual legend", and that he was "not impressed" by him, the lawyer added.

Tuesday's opening statements were delayed for hours after two jurors were dismissed from the lineup, forcing lawyers and the judge to re-interview potential candidates before the full panel could be sworn in.

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