Trial of El Chapo Highlights Failure of U.S. War on Drugs, But Will U.S. Ever Be Held to Account?

StoryFebruary 05, 2019
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Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the notorious Mexican drug kingpin, has been on trial in New York City for 11 weeks. A federal jury headed into deliberations yesterday after more than 200 hours of testimony at the Federal District Court in Brooklyn revealing the inner workings of the Sinaloa Cartel, the major drug trafficking organization run by El Chapo. Fifty-six witnesses took to the stand with stories of murder, violence, spying, widespread corruption and even one tale of the drug lord escaping arrest in 2014 by climbing naked through a sewer alongside a former lover. El Chapo faces 10 charges, including leading a criminal enterprise, and could receive life in prison in the U.S. if convicted. The trial concludes as Donald Trump continues to call for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, which he claims will help combat drug trafficking. However, government data shows most of the hard narcotics seized by Customs and Border Protection come at legal ports of entry, not from people trying to secretly cross the southern border. We speak with Christy Thornton, an assistant professor of sociology and Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins University, who says El Chapo’s sensational trial is obscuring the truth about the so-called war on drugs.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We end today’s show with the trial of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the notorious Mexican drug kingpin, who has been on trial in New York City for 11 weeks. A federal jury headed into deliberations yesterday after more than 200 hours of testimony at the Federal District Court in Brooklyn that revealed the inner workings of the Sinaloa Cartel, the major drug trafficking organization run by El Chapo. Fifty-six witnesses took the stand with stories of murder, violence, spying, widespread corruption and even one tale of the drug lord escaping arrest in 2014 by climbing naked through a sewer alongside a former lover. El Chapo faces 10 charges, including leading a criminal enterprise, and could receive life in prison in the United States if convicted.

Before being extradited to the U.S., Guzmán had escaped from jail in Mexico twice. More than a dozen of his former associates struck deals to cooperate with U.S. prosecutors, who say Guzmán trafficked tons of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamines into the United States over two decades. The trial also implicated the Mexican government in the cartel’s corruption, with one witness alleging that former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto accepted a $100 million bribe from drug traffickers. Peña Nieto has denied the claim.

AMY GOODMAN: The trial concludes as President Trump continues to call for a wall on the U.S-Mexico border, which he claims will help combat drug trafficking. However, several former Sinaloa Cartel members testified during the trial they primarily smuggled drugs through the legal ports of entry, in trucks, cars, trains and fishing boats. U.S. government data also shows most of the hard narcotics seized by Customs and Border Protection come at legal ports of entry, not from people trying to secretly cross the southern border.

Well, for more, we’re joined by a guest who says El Chapo’s sensational trial is obscuring the truth about the so-called war on drugs. Christy Thornton is an assistant professor of sociology and Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins University. Her recent article in Jacobin is headlined “El Chapo and the Nacro-Spectacle.” In it, she writes El Chapo’s trial is, quote, “a last-gasp effort to salvage the reputation of a failing war that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives.”

Professor Thornton, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about the revelations in the trial and how you feel they’ve been misrepresented or distorted by the media.

CHRISTY THORNTON: Well, I think it’s a really interesting question. In the early parts of the trial, we saw a situation in which both the prosecution—that is, the U.S. government—and the judge really worked hard to try and keep evidence of the U.S. government’s complicity with the Sinaloa Cartel and its activities out of the courtroom. Over the course of the trial itself, many of the documents that reveal some of those communications, between, for instance, the DEA and the lawyers for El Chapo and the Sinaloa organization, have come out, have been unsealed. And that’s largely thanks to the really diligent work of journalists, such as those from Vice News and from The New York Times, who have worked really hard to get that information out from under seal.

But one of the important things is that it was made very clear to the jurors, who now are entering their second day of deliberation, that, as the prosecution put it, the U.S. government is not on trial, the Mexican government is not on trial. They are there to decide the guilt of El Chapo. And so, these questions about the complicity of U.S. government actors, the complicity of Mexican government actors, those are sort of off the table. And that is, I think, a much broader question than the one that’s being considered by the jury right now, as we speak, in that courtroom in Brooklyn.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Christy Thornton, what are some of those revelations, in terms of the complicity of the United States with the Sinaloa Cartel?

CHRISTY THORNTON: Yeah, there are things that will not be a surprise to people who have been Mexico watchers. There are things that have been revealed in the Mexican media, particularly by the investigative journalist Anabel Hernández for some time. We know, for instance, that lawyers for the Sinaloa organization met with the DEA, over a period of more than a decade, and agreed to give information about rival traffickers. The question that arises is whether those agreements to provide information on rival organizations also included promises of immunity from prosecution. And one of the main cooperating witnesses of the Zambada family, who is the son of the partner of El Chapo, the son of “El Mayo” Zambada, testified, and he was under the impression, when he was finally arrested, that he had been given immunity from the DEA. The courts and the DEA denied this. They said that that had never been the case. But in the course of making that argument, it was entered into the court record, these documents that showed that Sinaloa lawyers were meeting with the DEA for more than a decade, from at least 2005 to 2015. And so, in that way, U.S. officials have been very much aware of the trafficking activities. Now, there have been Mexican investigations published that allege, essentially, that the DEA allowed Sinaloa to continue its activities as long as it was providing information on rival kinds of drug trafficking organizations. That remains unclear, but those allegations were out there and were stricken from the record that the jury will see. And so, that won’t be part of the case against El Chapo but is definitely part of the context here. And that’s in addition, of course, to the vast collaboration with aspects of the Mexican state, the federal security forces, local security forces, and this allegation all the way up to the presidency itself.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And those allegations, if true, would not be the first time, because, decades ago, when the drug war was focused on Colombia, there were allegations back then that U.S. government officials cooperated more with the Cali Cartel as long as they were able to go after the Medellín Cartel and Pablo Escobar, so that there’s always sort of been, it seems, a history of U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s seeking to play one cartel off against another in this so-called war on drugs.

CHRISTY THORNTON: Yeah, I think that’s really important. And the reason that that’s the case is because the prosecution’s strategy in a case like this is to prove a conspiracy. So they are trying to prove a conspiracy to traffic drugs, to commit murder, all of the various charges. And in order to prove that conspiracy, they have to build a case about the structure of these cartels, to come up with a story about the structure of these cartels, that they are vertically integrated, that there is a kingpin at the top, the idea that if they take out the kingpin, they will decapitate the organization and therefore make it no longer function. That whole story comes from that prosecutorial strategy.

And so, we see the intelligence gathering—right?—aligned to that strategy. And that tells a particular kind of story about drug trafficking, about how drugs are moved into the United States, that I think actually completely obscures what modern-day drug trafficking looks like. We’re not talking about the kind of vertically integrated family, Al Capone structures that we get from kind of mafia stories anymore. We have instead these very flexible, ad hoc networks that are able to come together and come apart based on market opportunities and threats. And so we really see a kind of neoliberal, just-in-time organization of these drug trafficking organizations that just doesn’t comport with this prosecutorial strategy that revolves around the kingpin and the conspiracy. So, in order to prove the case, they have to continue to tell an outdated story about how drug trafficking works. And in order to make that case, they have to do this kind of intelligence gathering that gives them the story that they need in order to get a conviction.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, according to one of the witnesses who testified at El Chapo’s trial, former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto accepted a $100 million bribe from drug traffickers, the allegation coming from a former associate of El Chapo, the Colombian drug lord Alex Cifuentes Villa. Peña Nieto has not responded to the claim but has previously denied charges of corruption. What’s your response to this?

CHRISTY THORNTON: Well, you know, it’s hard to know if this bribe actually happened. There have been allegations that Mexican presidents have been on the payroll of this drug trafficking organization four decades now. When El Chapo escaped from federal prison, supposedly being wheeled out in a laundry cart, the investigative journalist Anabel Hernández says that, you know, the former president, under the PAN, Vicente Fox, he knew about this, he authorized this, this release. So, allegations against—going all the way up to the Mexican president, are something that have been a part of the drug war, you know, since it really began. And so, that, in itself, is not especially surprising.

The question is what it says about the structure of the Sinaloa Cartel. The defense for El Chapo has tried to make the case that it was not El Chapo who gave this bribe, because if he did that, then obviously it didn’t work—he was captured and extradited—but, instead, El Chapo’s partner, El Mayo Zambada, who is still at large, who has never been imprisoned. And that is noteworthy, according to the defense of El Chapo. If this $100 million bribe to the Mexican president did indeed happen, it’s noteworthy that the other partner in the Sinaloa drug trafficking organization is still at large, is still theoretically in charge of the organization and still trafficking drugs.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what do you make of the fact that El Chapo’s attorneys mounted virtually no defense, other than cross-examining the prosecution witnesses? It was a record-short defense portion of this trial.

CHRISTY THORNTON: Yeah, it was a very lopsided defense portion of the trial. After you said—after about three months of the prosecution laying out their case, we got basically a day of testimony in the defense. The case that the defense is really trying to make is that El Chapo is not sort of the singular kingpin of the Sinaloa Cartel, that he is one in a group of people who have led this drug trafficking organization, and that, in fact, he has been set up by his partner, El Mayo Zambada, to sort of take the fall. And so, in the closing arguments, we saw El Chapo’s lawyer make this argument again and again, almost to the point of reproach from the judge, because this case also relies on—he very much intimated things about the cooperation between the Mexican government, the U.S. government and the Sinaloa organization, that rely on the fact that El Mayo is still out there at large. And so, that has very much been the strategy of El Chapo’s defense, to just say, “He’s not the only kingpin. He’s not the only guy there at the top. You shouldn’t let him take the fall for this broader sort of structural set of circumstances that involve both governments and other traffickers within Sinaloa.”

AMY GOODMAN: During the trial, the jury heard testimony blaming El Chapo’s sons for the murder of the Mexican journalist Javier Valdez, who died in May of 2017 after he was dragged out of his car and shot 12 times, less than a block from the office of the newspaper he co-founded in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. A former lieutenant in the Sinaloa drug cartel testified at El Chapo’s trial that Valdez was murdered after he ignored death threats by El Chapo’s sons against publishing an interview. In March of 2017, after one of his colleagues was assassinated, Javier Valdez said, quote, “Let them kill us all, if that is the death sentence for reporting this hell. No to silence.” Valdez would be assassinated just two months later. Christy Thornton?

CHRISTY THORNTON: Javier Valdez is among—he’s among this whole group of journalists who have lost their lives in Mexico. It’s a really terrifying situation. What journalists in Mexico tell me is, yes, of course, they fear the narcos, but even more than that, they fear this complicity between the narcos and the government. And so, reporting on especially questions of the way in which local, state and federal actors might be involved in the drug trade and involved with the narcotraffickers has been a really difficult point of contention. We’ve just seen dozens and dozens of Mexican journalists lose their lives and have to go into exile here in the United States and in other places for reporting on this. So, that is a really serious repercussion of the continuance of this drug war, and one that we absolutely need to think about when we’re thinking about what the strategy is here from the United States, the way that we are perpetuating precisely that kind of violence against journalists in Mexico.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’d like to ask you, in about a minute that we have left, what your sense is the outcome will be of the trial, and what would the impact of a guilty verdict have on the “war on drugs.”

CHRISTY THORNTON: Well, the impact of a guilty verdict is basically nil. It’s not—I don’t think a guilty verdict is a foregone conclusion. There are many who assume, because of the lopsided nature of the prosecution, because so much of the defense was so short, and because there is such a preponderance of evidence, that this will be a sort of open-and-shut case. I think that there is some possibility that there might be jurors who question the overall structure of this, who buy the defense’s argument about El Chapo not being the kind of singular head of this.

But, honestly, if he is convicted, he spends the rest of his life in jail here in the United States, and literally nothing changes about how drugs are coming across the border. We just saw this week this huge interdiction of fentanyl coming through a legal port of entry. And so, the drug cartels will continue to meet the demand that comes from the market here in the United States. We spend $100 billion on illegal drugs here in the United States every year. That demand and the price premium that comes from our prohibitionist policies from the militarization of the border, those things will continue to be a massive incentive for not only the remaining parts of the Sinaloa Cartel, but all of the factions that have fractured from it, and the competing drug trafficking organizations, to continue to bring this to the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: And very quickly, as President Trump is about to give his State of the Union address and demand the wall on the southern border, just as you said, with the fentanyl caught going through a legal port of entry, the big message of this trial, that it’s legal ports of entry that the drugs are coming through?

CHRISTY THORNTON: I think that’s something that will be ignored, that Trump has continued to ignore the evidence there is. The idea that we can argue with Trump about the wall with sort of fact- and evidence-based policy has been shown to be untrue. The wall will absolutely not stop the vast majority of drugs from coming into the United States. It’s an ineffective policy. But increased border militarization as the compromise, as the thing that the Democrats are offering—not a wall, but further militarization, more personnel, more surveillance technology—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to end it there.

CHRISTY THORNTON: —that’s not the answer, either.

AMY GOODMAN: Christy Thornton, thank you for joining us. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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