He spent years on the run, assembling what US authorities have described as a private army.
Following his most recent prison escape in 2015, using a tunnel dug to his cell, he was hunted again, arrested again and then extradited to the United States, where he faced federal charges in multiple locations.
His trial in Brooklyn ended a little more than a year after he was removed from Mexico, where prosecutors say Guzman, as the cartel’s leader, pumped drugs into the United States, bribed Mexican officials, laundered money and repeatedly commanded his “sicarios” – or assassins – to commit brutal acts of violence.
Guzman’s conviction came after prosecutors assembled an extensive case that included cooperating witnesses and intercepted messages, which demonstrated a remarkable degree of penetration into the cartel’s activities, said John Horn, a former US attorney who prosecuted Mexican cartel cases.
Horn said a conviction in a case like this also carries a deeper meaning.
“There does need to be a conviction of somebody like Chapo Guzman, both for the symbolism and the pure factor of justice being served,” Horn, who is now in private practice, said in an interview before the verdict.
“It does show that . . . for somebody at his level, justice will be done, it will be served. It’s an incredibly powerful victory for DOJ, for law enforcement.”
The prosecution’s case against Guzman, a roughly 1.5 metre figure whose nickname translates to “Shorty,” included the testimony of several turncoats and other witnesses.
Among them were Guzman’s former Sinaloa lieutenants, a computer encryption expert and a Colombian cocaine supplier who underwent extreme plastic surgery to disguise his appearance.
One Sinaloa insider described Mexican workers getting contact highs while packing cocaine into thousands of jalapeno cans – shipments that totaled 25 to 30 tons of cocaine worth $500 million each year.
Another testified how Guzman sometimes acted as his own sicario, or hitman.
The tension at times was cut by some of the trial’s sideshows, such as the sight of Guzman and his wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, showing up in matching burgundy velvet blazers in a gesture of solidarity. Another day, a Chapo-size actor who played the kingpin in the TV series “Narcos: Mexico” came to watch, telling reporters that seeing the defendant flash him a smile was “surreal.”
While the trial was dominated by Guzman’s persona as a near-mythical outlaw who carried a diamond-encrusted handgun and stayed one step ahead of the law, the jury never heard from Guzman himself, except when he told the judge he wouldn’t testify.
But his sing-songy voice filled the courtroom, thanks to recordings of intercepted phone calls. “Amigo!” he said to a cartel distributor in Chicago. “Here at your service.”
One of the trial’s most memorable tales came from girlfriend Lucero Guadalupe Sanchez Lopez, who testified she was in bed in a safe house with an on-the-run Guzman in 2014 when Mexican marines started breaking down his door. She said Guzman led her to a trap door beneath a bathtub that opened up to a tunnel that allowed them to escape.
Asked what he was wearing, she replied: “He was naked. He took off running. He left us behind.”
Prosecutors have been unsparing in depicting Guzman as a purveyor of brutality and horror spanning borders.
But defence lawyers have insisted that he has been made a scapegoat. Guzman’s lawyers asked the jury to dismiss the testimony of the government’s cooperating witnesses, describing them as liars out to save themselves by seeking the best possible deals with authorities.
For Guzman, a conviction in a US courtroom that guarantees life in prison cuts to the heart of his underworld myth, which only grew while he was a notorious fugitive.
Federal prosecutors have described Guzman’s rise in the 1980s as being fuelled by his skill at funnelling cocaine into the US and then getting proceeds back to Colombian cartels. Guzman continued expanding his empire, prosecutors said, even after he was taken into custody in Guatemala in 1993 and placed in a maximum-security prison in Mexico.
His 2001 escape from that prison – infamously said to involve him slipping away in a laundry hamper – began what would be more than a decade evading capture.
Those years were filled with financial successes, violence and efforts to corrupt Mexican government officials, prosecutors wrote in court filings. They also said Guzman and his associates obtained drugs and supplies from other countries and sent cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines and marijuana into the US.
Guzman was arrested again in 2014, and he escaped into the tunnel the following year. In 2016, he was arrested once more, and spent a year in custody before his extradition.
The drug trade was a gold mine for Guzman, enabling him to “exponentially increase his profits to staggering levels,” prosecutors wrote in one court filing.
But a key part of that, prosecutors continued, was “thousands of acts of violence” – including murder, torture and kidnappings – committed by assassins who he aimed at possible witnesses or people who sought to help law enforcement.
Prosecutors say Guzman carried out some of the violence personally. During closing arguments in the trial, Assistant US Attorney Andrea Goldbarg said Guzman once cursed and shot two men, both of whom were already badly beaten, for working with a rival cartel. He then ordered their bodies thrown into a bonfire, Goldbarg said.
Court papers unsealed on Friday, after closing arguments had concluded, included allegations that Guzman raped girls as young as 13. An attorney representing Guzman said he denied the allegations.
Guzman allegedly referred to the girls as “vitamins” who brought him “life,” according to NPR.
While Guzman had sought to shield his communications from authorities, he also wiretapped people around him – including his family, mistresses and other associates – which Goldfarb said ultimately helped law enforcement officials.
The IT technician who set up a system for Guzman to surveil those around him ultimately gave it to the FBI. Goldfarb said Guzman found out the technician was working with U.S. authorities and sought to have him killed, but no one could find him. The technician testified at trial.