Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, surrounded by US Marshals, waves to his wife as he enters the courtroom at Brooklyn Federal Court, as his high-security trial got underway in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018. Image Credit: AP

New York: A lawyer for accused Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman told a New York jury in opening remarks that his client was a scapegoat for the real leader of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.

“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. “In truth he controlled nothing. Mayo Zambada did.” Lichtman also said that Zambada had been left free because he “bribes the entire government of Mexico including up to the very top, the current president of Mexico,” Enrique Pena Nieto.

Pena Nieto’s spokesman said of the accusation: “That is false.” Lichtman’s statement came after Assistant US Attorney Adam Fels laid out the US government’s case, describing how prosecutors would prove that Guzman rose from a low-level marijuana trafficker in the 1970s to lead the powerful Sinaloa Cartel.

Fels said that Guzman, 61, eventually established relationships with Colombian cartels that allowed him to make billions of dollars moving cocaine. He said jurors would see evidence of seized cocaine shipments adding up to “more than a line of cocaine for every single person in the United States.” Fels told jurors that Guzman left a trail of violence, turning parts of Mexico into war zones as he fought rivals to expand his reach. He said jurors would hear of how Guzman personally shot two members of a rival cartel and ordered them thrown into holes and burnt.

Guzman faces 17 criminal counts and a possible life sentence if he is convicted.

Lichtman spent much of his opening statement attacking their credibility. “Why is the government going so far in this case using these gutter human beings as the evidence?” he asked. “It’s because the conviction of Chapo Guzman is the biggest prize this prosecution could ever dream of.” Lichtman urged jurors to “keep an open mind” and consider that both Mexican and US law enforcement could be corrupt. “They work together when it suits them, Mayo (Zambada) and the United States government,” he said. Lichtman also strove to humanise the defendant, describing his childhood selling oranges, cheese and bread door-to-door in a poor village.

The career of Mexico’s brutal Robin Hood

• The evidence presented at the New York trial of Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman paints a picture of a Robin Hood figure, albeit a brutal one, who amassed a $14 billion fortune by bribery, murdering rivals and smuggling huge amounts of drugs.

• Guzman started as a teenager cultivating marijuana and growing poppies for heroin production, going on to become the main leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, “the world’s largest and most prolific drug trafficking organisation.” While he was guarded by a virtual army of enforcers and cartel assassins, Guzman was also known to carry a gold-plated AK-47 assault rifle and a diamond-encrusted pistol for his own personal protection.

• In 2001, Guzman famously escaped from prison, purportedly in a laundry cart with the assistance of prison officials whom he had corrupted. He escaped again in 2015, from a maximum-security prison via a tunnel of more than a mile long that emerged in the bathroom in his cell. The complexity and cost of the plan is part of the DoJ’s case that he was a very powerful figure in Mexico.

• Guzman’s enforcers were tasked with a wide-range of murder, assault, kidnappings, torture and targeted assassinations designed to “promote and enhance his prestige, reputation and position within the Sinaloa Cartel and to protect the cartel against challenges from rivals.” During one specially violent turf battle over the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, one of Guzman’s assassins oversaw a house specially designed for murder with plastic sheets covering the walls to minimise messes as well as a drain in the middle of the floor to quickly clean up spilt blood.

• El Chapo’s wrath against rivals could be hyper-violent. Allegedly on his orders, trafficker Julio Beltran was gunned down on the streets of the Sinaloa state capital of Culiacan “using so many rounds of ammunition that Beltran’s head was almost completely separated from his body.”

• By some, he was viewed as a modern-day Robin Hood, popular with the down-trodden and extolled in popular songs. There were protests in the streets of Sinaloa after his arrest. For years stories have emerged in Mexico of Guzman helping poor communities by paying for roads and other infrastructure projects, including contracting helicopters to install posts for the electricity system of his mountainous hometown of Badiraguato, Sinaloa.