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Joaquín Guzmán, commonly known as the Mexican drug lord “El Chapo,” is on trial in federal court in New York City for running a multimillion-dollar narcotics operation across the United States border. Keegan Hamilton of VICE joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss El Chapo's violent legacy as head of the Sinaloa drug cartel, how the FBI eventually tracked him down and the dramatic courtroom revelations.
A tightly secured federal courthouse in Brooklyn has hosted, since November, the trial of one of the world's most wanted men. He was a billionaire, and cartel boss. He stands accused of ordering murders and running one of world's most-profitable and deadly drug syndicates.
Hari Sreenivasan caught up with a reporter is covering the trial and the man known as El Chapo.
He is the world's most infamous and ruthless drug kingpin, and his federal trial in New York has produced one explosive revelation after another, with a storyline that is equal parts gangster movie and soap opera.
Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman ran the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico, an international drug operation he used almost as a license to print money and kill anyone who stood in his way. Guzman was repeatedly captured by Mexican authorities and escaped from prison twice, the last time in 2015 through a nearly mile-long tunnel dug right into the shower of his cell.
He was recaptured in 2016 and extradited to the U.S.
For more on all, we're joined by Keegan Hamilton, U.S. editor of VICE News and host of VICE News' podcast "Chapo: Kingpin on Trial."
Thanks for being with us.
You have been in the courtroom all week. Given what just went by, it does read a bit like a telenovela. You have got testimony from a mistress. You have got a drug campaign. You have got his wife in the stands.
This is all real life.
It was a pretty remarkable week in the courtroom, and, like you said, it felt like a soap opera at times, with Chapo's mistress on the witness stand, his wife in the gallery, and the texts between Chapo and his mistress displayed on the screen in the courtroom for everyone to see. It was quite the drama.
There's the bigger-picture question here of the levels of corruption that might have existed between El Chapo, the former president of Mexico, and now there's some indication possibly members in the campaign of the current president?
There were several bombshells this week. As you mentioned, the biggest one was the allegation that Chapo and the Sinaloa cartel paid a $100 million bribe to Enrique Pena Nieto, the form president of Mexico.
After that, we saw in a court document that was unsealed an allegation that, in 2006, a member of — the current president of Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a member of his campaign may have received a bribe from members of the Sinaloa cartel.
What do the former president and the current president say to all this?
A former spokesperson for Pena Nieto called the allegations false and defamatory. The current president, Lopez Obrador, has declined to comment on it. But his spokesman said that these comments are coming from a protected witness at a trial in the United States, and I guess therefore shouldn't be believed.
One of the things that is interesting is the tech-savviness of his infrastructure.
I mean, we're talking about encrypted cell phone networks, the ability to spy on his mistress without her knowing it through her cell phone.
That was one of the more remarkable revelations of this past month.
One of the key witnesses and one of the most damning witnesses that testified so far was a Colombian who was essentially hired to be the Sinaloa's cartel I.T. guy, and built a custom encrypted communications network that, by all accounts, was working great, until the FBI approached that guy and turned him into an informant, and gave the law enforcement access to the servers, which allowed them to record all of these conversations that Chapo was having with basically everyone in his business.
As for the spyware, that was Chapo's own doing, where he installed commercial spyware on the phones of his wife and mistresses. And all of those communications were recorded. And the same I.T. guy gave the FBI access to that data as well.
Did El Chapo react in any way when his voice was playing out through the courtroom?
Not when his voice was playing in the courtroom so much.
Normally, he's pretty stoic. He's either staring down whoever's on the witness stand, he's talking with his attorneys, or he's trying to catch his wife's attention in the gallery.
His most notable reaction was at some point when his mistress was testifying, and we were seeing these messages between them that were both embarrassing and highly incriminating. And he just sort of hung his head a little bit and seemed to be staring down in his lap, which was really the first time we'd seen any sign of defeat on Chapo throughout the course of this trial.
Let's not forget this is a man who sat on top of a very violent cartel, and it was financed by moving enormous sums of drugs.
Put that in perspective. What's the scale that we're talking about?
Just this week, we saw the FBI give evidence about a drug ledger that was obtained during a raid on one of Chapo's properties.
And in the course of a little over a month, we're talking about $3 million worth of drugs, more or less, that moved through the organization. And that's just what was contained in that one ledger that they know about. I think it's safe to say tens of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars per year are moving through this organization.
The U.S. authorities haven't been able to seize any assets of Chapo, so who knows how much he has squirreled away in Mexico and elsewhere. The scale of drugs is enormous, hundreds, thousands of kilos of drugs.
The federal prosecutors, when they filed these charges, had hoped to seize $14 billion from Chapo. That seems kind of like a fantasy at this point, since they found none of that money. But it gives you a sense of what U.S. authorities think they can prove the worth of the drugs that he trafficked into the United States over the years is.
And for people who don't know the landscape, how violent, how big was this cartel or is this cartel? We see numbers as high as 250,000 people killed in this drug war.
I mean, the Sinaloa cartel is the largest and most powerful drug trafficking organization in Mexico.
They are moving drugs across the hemisphere. And, in Mexico, they are — in the past especially, have been responsible for a significant amount of the violence.
In Ciudad Juarez, for example, along the border with El Paso, Texas, basically, a personal dispute between Chapo and another drug trafficker escalated into a war that made Juarez for a while the murder capital of the Western Hemisphere.
Keegan Hamilton, the U.S. editor of VICE News and host of VICE's podcast "Chapo: Kingpin on Trial," thanks for joining us.
Thanks for having me.
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