United States of America v. Joaquín Guzmán Loera

A Review Of A Major DEA Drug Case

Background

Joaquín Guzmán Loera, popularly known as El Chapo, is one of the most notorious drug lords of our time. From humble beginnings as a smalltime marijuana farmer in his rural Badiraguato village, Guzmán rose through the ranks of the narcotics trade, before forming the Sinaloa Cartel. The murder of an undercover Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent in 1985 by Miguel Gallardo resulted in the arrest of his mentor, providing an opportunity for Guzmán to expand his smuggling operations. These changes in leadership were also a cause of concern for the DEA since the agency was well aware of the kingpin’s influence and what this would mean for the drug trade.

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According to Forbes, Guzmán dabbled in the smuggling of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and amphetamines, which allowed his organization to amass annual revenues of well over $3 billion (Kroll, 2016). The cartel’s success in the trade has been linked to a combination of creative smuggling techniques and savvy business acumen. The United States government soon viewed Guzmán as a threat and placed a $5 million bounty on his head (Baselmans, 2016, p. 162). Despite these efforts, Guzmán still operated with impunity and moved freely within Mexico. After numerous failed attempts, he was finally captured on January 8, 2016, and extradited to the United States. He appeared before U.S District Judge Brian Cogan charged with drug smuggling, money laundering, and manslaughter but denied all charges leveled against him. In July 2019, a New York trial jury found Guzmán guilty and sentenced him to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Law Enforcement Operations

 Since the early 1980s, the DEA’s drug policy involved the dismantling of illegal conglomerates by targeting their leaders. It was this approach that initially aided the agency in eliminating Pablo Escobar in Columbia, essentially rendering his Medellin Cartel defunct. However, the DEA soon realized that this approach was becoming increasingly difficult to implement, especially since the structure of organized crime and its players was constantly evolving.

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From the early 2000s, the DEA had its sights on Guzmán, who was viewed as a significant source of the opioid crisis that was slowly crippling American society. The drug kingpin saw this prescription drug epidemic from a shrewd businessman’s perspective and proceeded to increase the flow of heroin into the United States. After a series of high-level negotiations, the National Supreme Court of Justice in Mexico approved the extradition of criminals on condition that they would not face the death penalty if convicted in the United States (Paoli, 2014, p. 54). Criminology pundits now view this as a defining moment in law enforcement operations. American law enforcement agencies such as the DEA could now prepare a case against Guzmán if Mexican authorities apprehended him. The reelection of President Peña Nieto in 2012 also marked the beginning of a new era in Mexico.  Elected leaders were now willing to fully cooperate with the DEA to rid the country of its drug kingpins. By this time, Guzmán had already escaped twice from two maximum-security prisons. Cooperation between the DEA and Mexican law enforcement agencies finally led to Guzmán’s arrest on 8 January 2016 and subsequent extradition to the United States to stand trial.

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Enforcement Strategies

 The prosecution first made sure that Guzmán was incarcerated pending trial to avoid a repeat of prison escape incidents. The nature of the egregious offenses also warranted this approach since he was a flight risk and had, time and again, proved to be a threat to public safety. In an application to the Eastern District of New York, the DEA described Guzmán’s destructive nature and ability to eliminate witnesses testifying against him. Additionally, his vast wealth also meant that his release pending trial would impact negatively on the case since Guzmán was well known for his control of corrupt government officials using bribery (“Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera Faces Charges In New York For Leading A Continuing Criminal Enterprise And Other Drug-Related Charges,” 2017). In addition to this, his stable army of sicarios and assassins still roamed significant cities, which posed a direct threat to witnesses. An elaborate witness protection program by law enforcement agencies meant that they were safeguarded to avoid exposing them to harm. One strategy entailed keeping their entities a closely guarded secret. During trial proceedings, court sketch artists were warned against drawing any distinguishable features that may aid in the identification of critical witnesses (Maria Santana and Eric Levenson, CNN, 2018).  Furthermore, the sketches would later be evaluated by prosecutors before authorizing their distribution. A heightened security level also meant that Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) had to be applied during trial. To this effect, the court prohibited any form of communication between Guzmán and his common-law wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro who was also barred from jail visits. Officials placed Guzmán under a 23-hour daily lockdown and always ensured that he was heavily guarded by a team of U.S marshals whenever he appeared in court.

Prosecution of the Case

 The United States of America v. Joaquín Guzmán Loera case began on November 13, 2018. Through his lawyer, Guzmán denied the 17 counts and maintained his innocence. He mainly took issue with the accusation that he was the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel. Guzmán claimed that Ismael Zambada was the actual leader of the organization and that he had been falsely accused. He pled not guilty to all drug smuggling, money laundering, and manslaughter indictments while standing trial at the Eastern District of New York court. The original counts were then reduced to 10 to hasten the prosecution process, and a fitting jury selected to make deliberations on the case.  It is also worth noting that their identities remained private as a safety measure. The high-profile assassination of Vicente Antonio Bermúdez Zacarías, a Mexican judge, presiding over Guzmán’s extradition case, was cited as an example of the defendant’s ruthlessness (Smith, 2016).  The prosecution presented 56 witnesses, while Guzmán only had 1. Additionally, cell phone history data was also present in transcript form detailing Guzmán’s incriminating cellphone conversations with his associates. The entire trial lasted for three months. After deliberations, the jury found Guzmán guilty on all counts and sentenced him to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole to be served in ADX Florence, a super-maximum security prison.

Projected Impact of the Case on Drug Supply Reduction

The United States and Mexico have had to grapple with decades-long debacles fueled by the drug trade. Dubbed the “trial of the century,” Guzmán’s conviction endeavored to dismantle his drug enterprise and illegal activities.  Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is that this case will have little or no effect on drug supply reduction in the Americas. The Sinaloa Cartel still has firm control over this lucrative trade, and it is highly unlikely that their operation will cease with the Guzmán’s incarceration. The New York Times even reports the ironic twist of events where Arizona border control officials seized one of the largest fentanyl hauls on the same day the Brooklyn federal court gave its verdict (“El Chapo Is Behind Bars, but Drugs Still Flow From Mexico,” 2019).  A transparent chain of command within the Sinaloa Cartel ensures that no power vacuum is left and business continues as usual. Since Guzmán’s conviction, the production of raw coca has reached records high in South America. The appetite for drugs within the United States remains insatiable, and drug-related homicides in Mexico remain constant. Thus, novel strategies have to be applied if the objective of drug supply reduction is ever to be achieved in societies plagued by this existential scourge.

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