'El Chapo' ordered family hits
Four-month trial begins as court hears of drug baron's '$14bn cartel'
Drug baron Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman ordered hits on his own family and his weapons of choice were a diamond-encrusted pistol and a gold-plated AK-47, a US court has heard.
Guzman, considered the world's largest drug trafficker since the death of Colombia's Pablo Escobar, is on trial in New York under draconian security arrangements after twice escaping from prison in Mexico.
Prosecutors branded Guzman a ruthless criminal boss who murdered in cold blood, with Assistant US Attorney Adam Fels claiming Guzman used a small private army consisting of hundreds of men "armed with assault rifles" to take out his rivals.
"He ordered his hitmen to locate, kidnap, torture, interrogate, shoot and kill those rivals," Mr Fels told the court. "Not even Guzman's own family members were immune."
Guzman's defence team have sought to paint him as the "scapegoat" of a cartel that bribed Mexican presidents.
The substantive phase of the case began with opening statements in what is expected to be one of the most expensive trials in US history.
Guzman faces 11 trafficking, firearms and money laundering charges that will likely see him incarcerated for the rest of his life in a maximum security US prison if he is convicted at the end of the more than four-month trial.
He is accused of leading the Sinaloa cartel, turning it into the world's largest criminal group and of smuggling enough cocaine "for 328 million lines" - equivalent to more than one per every person in the United States.
The defence alleged that Guzman's co-defendant who remains at large, Ismael 'El Mayo' Zambada, was the real culprit. "The truth is he (Guzman) controlled nothing, Mayo Zambada did," Jeffrey Lichtman told the US federal court.
Zambada, he alleged, bribed everybody, "including the very top, the current president of Mexico and the former," he added in reference to Mexico's outgoing president Enrique Pena Nieto and his predecessor, Felipe Calderon.
Both Mr Calderon and Mr Pena Nieto swiftly denied taking any bribes from the Sinaloa cartel, the former calling the allegation "absolutely false and reckless" and the latter saying it was "completely false and defamatory".
Guzman, who has been held in solitary confinement for nearly two years, is a "scapegoat," Mr Lichtman added. "Why does the Mexican government need a scapegoat? Because they're making too much money being bribed by the leaders of drug cartels."
Prosecutors say from 1989 to 2014, the Sinaloa cartel smuggled 154,626kg of cocaine into the United States, as well as heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana, raking in $14bn (€12.4bn).
"Money, drugs, murder; a vast global narcotics trafficking organisation. That is what this trial is about and that is what the evidence in this case will prove," Mr Fels told the court.
Guzman, he alleged in his opening statements, had his "own private army" of hundreds of armed men, as well as his own diamond-encrusted pistol branded with his initials and a gold-plated AK-47.
US prosecutors have spent years accumulating more than 300,000 pages and at least 117,000 recordings in evidence against Guzman. They claim that Guzman ordered or committed at least 33 murders.
"You'll see how Guzman pulls the trigger," Mr Fels told jurors. "He was indeed the boss of his organisation."
Prosecutors promised to lay out "this global narco empire in his own words", from text messages and letters, and from witnesses detailing how he would receive $10m from a single shipment of cocaine. More than a dozen of those who are expected to testify are in witness protection programmes or already in jail.
Guzman's beauty queen wife, Emma Coronel, with whom he has been banned from having any direct contact, attended court. Exiting the building, she stopped to take a couple of selfies.