El Chapo is escorted by Mexican police during his extradition to US. Image Credit: AFP

New York: It was nearly two years ago that Joaquin Guzman Loera, the infamous drug lord known as El Chapo, was extradited from Mexico and flown across the border, ending one of the century’s most notorious criminal careers.

As the longtime leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel, he wore many guises: the savvy smuggler who packed cocaine in cans of jalapenos, the brutal killer said to have shot up a Puerto Vallarta nightclub and the folklore hero who twice escaped from prison.

But this week, after decades of eluding officials in his homeland, where he was convicted in 1993 on drug and homicide charges, the legendary kingpin finally went on trial in a US court.

At the trial on Tuesday in US District Court in Brooklyn, the infamous Mexican drug lord was alternately portrayed as a calculating leader of a bloodthirsty smuggling operation that funnelled tons of cocaine and other drugs into American cities and a scapegoat for a conspiracy whose actual mastermind bribed crooked Mexican officials as high as the president to keep his freedom.

In opening statements amid tight security in federal court in Brooklyn, Assistant US Attorney Adam Fels told a jury whose identities have been kept secret how the man who got his start in a modest marijuana-selling business became a kingpin known for using an army of hit men to wipe out his competitors and anyone within his Sinaloa cartel who betrayed him.

Unprecedented security in New York Image Credit: Graphic News/Gulf News

“Money. Drugs. Murder. ... That is what this case is about,” Fels said.

With evidence that includes drug ledgers, satellite photos and secretly recorded audio tapes, prosecutors argued that during his more than 20 years in business, Guzman, now 59, raked in $14 billion in illicit profits, a fortune he protected with a vast payroll of corrupt officials and an army of professional assassins.

Defence attorney Jeffrey Lichtman sought to shift blame in his opening to Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, another reputed drug trafficker in the cartel’s leadership who is still at large in Mexico. The lawyer claimed that unlike Guzman, Zambada remains on the loose because of bribes that “go up to the very top,” including hundreds of millions of dollars paid to the current and former presidents of Mexico. He also suggested US law enforcement turned a blind eye to the situation.

The trial is a watershed moment in America’s war on drugs and in the fraught relationship between the US and Mexico. The trial in New York, which prosecutors say could last up to four months, will allow the government to tell the epic tale of Guzman’s remarkable life story.

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kilos of cocaine and other narcotics worth $14b smuggled by El Chapo into US between 1989 and 2014.

Guzman, who has been held in solitary confinement since his extradition to the United States early last year, 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” in Spanish, 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 known as narcocorridos. He appeared in a dark suit and tie on Tuesday 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.” Instead, he became known as “the speedy one.” Before his tunnels, it had taken weeks to move drugs across the border to the US

1970

Is when Guzman rose from a marijuana trafficker to lead the Sinaloa Cartel

Numerous rivals, allies and underlings, along with cartel experts and law enforcement officers, are expected to recount how Guzman rose from a poor teenage labourer who got his start in crime by farming marijuana in rural Sinaloa to become the Al Capone of the international drug trade.

The defence is being handled by three experienced lawyers. The lead lawyer, A. Eduardo Balarezo, is a cartel specialist. Balarezo is joined by Jeffrey Lichtman, who is perhaps best known for keeping the Mafia scion, John Gotti junior, out of prison. Rounding out the team is William Purpura, who once worked for Baltimore drug kingpin Richard Anthony Wilford.