This weekend, 12 anonymous New Yorkers are taking a break from an unenviable task: deciding whether the world’s most infamous drug kingpin is guilty of trafficking, money laundering, and a host of other charges linked to a massive and lucrative criminal enterprise.
The trial of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, has already provided an unsettling yet fascinating look into the how the former billionaire boss of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel managed his operations.
The court heard how El Chapo, whose nickname means “Shorty,” instructed his men to bury some victims alive, and how his former beauty queen wife (who is also more than three decades his junior) helped him escape from a maximum security prison in 2015.
On Monday, jurors will start the second week of deliberations about El Chapo’s guilt — somewhat surprising, given the mountain of evidence against him and considering that the defense team’s argument was only 30 minutes long.
The trial has demonstrated the near-impossibility of confronting drug cartels with the hardline militarized approach exemplified by former Mexican President Felipe Calderón who, in 2006, backed up by U.S. cash, began deploying the military against drug cartels.
That approach underestimated the extent of drug cartels’ infiltration and corruption of the Mexican state.
The trial has showcased corruption at every level of the Mexican state, from low-ranking police officers to former Army Generals like Gilberto Toledano, who was accused of allowing drugs to flow through his district in exchange for routine $100,000 bribes.
Another high-ranking corruption accusation is against Genaro García Luna, Mexico’s former secretary of Public Security who helped design Calderón’s troop crackdown on the cartels.
During the trial, former high-ranking member of the Sinaloa cartel Jesus “El Rey” Zambada claimed that he brought two briefcases — one containing six million dollars and the other eight million — to a restaurant for Luna to collect in 2005 and 2006, respectively. Luna strenuously denied the allegations.
“It’s a lie,” he said in a statement to the Mexican newspaper El Universal. “It’s defamatory and prejudice against me to say that any person, police officer or group has brought me money or material goods to change by public or personal performance.”
Perhaps the most astonishing accusation, however, was made by Alex Cifuentes Villa, a Colombian drug lord and ally of Chapo.
He alleged that, in 2012 when the Sinaloa boss was on the run, Guzmán tried to negotiate a $100 million bribe with then-Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto — an allegation which Nieto, unsurprisingly, denies.
It’s important to take these accusations with a grain of salt. The Nieto allegations, after all, were made during a cross-examination of Cifuentes by El Chapo’s defense, whose main argument is that Mexico’s corrupt government singled out El Chapo to take the blame.
“When it comes to the Guzmán trial and some of its more sensational revelations, it’s best to maintain skepticism on some fronts,” Malcom Beith, a journalist who has covered the drug war extensively, wrote in the Washington Post. “While it’s also certainly possible that top officials were corrupted, Guzmán likely didn’t need Peña Nieto’s, or any other president’s, help.”
Although perhaps hyperbolic, the accusations at the El Chapo trial demonstrate the very real problem of corruption which continues to stymie efforts to dial back Mexico’s brutal, drug-related violence.
The country currently ranks 138 on Transparency International’s corruption index, on par with Russia and Papua New Guinea. As ProPublica has noted, DEA cooperation with supposedly elite Mexican law-enforcement units has regularly led to violent cartel retribution on Mexicans, because those units have been compromised.
An example of how fed up Mexicans are of corruption can be seen with election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO, a leftist populist who highlighted corruption as a major issue in Mexico and promised to stamp down on it. In Brazil, continued public anger of the massive Operation Car Wash corruption scandal was also instrumental in delivering the election to far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro in October.
U.S. President Donald Trump consistently has tried to appear tough on crime, fear-mongering about the cartels’ abilities in order to get further support for his wall. At the same time however, he has passed deregulatory business policies which make it easier for drug lords like El Chapo to launder their money and move from brutality into legitimacy.
“In Mexico there’s a systemic problem with drug cartels, so any financial loopholes will be exploited ruthlessly,” said Oliver Bullough, an expert on money-laundering, previously told ThinkProgress.
“It’s quite important to recognize [drug-smuggling] is a business like any other, so the financial tricks they use are the same tricks and strategies a legal business would use — that’s why they need these systems to work.”
El Chapo will most likely spend the rest of his life behind bars. But even in his absence, Mexico is experiencing record levels of murders. Without a more thorough examination of the underlying problems affecting the country, such as the corruption underlined during his trial, the cycle of violence is set to continue.