Drug kingpin El Chapo sentenced to life in US prison

| | New York
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Drug kingpin El Chapo sentenced to life in US prison

Thursday, 18 July 2019 | AFP | New York

Drug kingpin El Chapo sentenced to life in US prison

Once one of the world's most powerful and notorious criminals, Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman was sentenced to life imprisonment -- the mandatory punishment for a host of crimes spanning a quarter-century.

Guzman, the 62-year-old former co-leader of Mexico's mighty Sinaloa drug cartel, was Wednesday convicted in February in US federal court on a spate of charges, including smuggling hundreds of tons of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana into the United States.

The much-anticipated hearing in New York capped a dramatic legal saga and saw Guzman -- wearing a gray suit, lilac shirt, purple tie and trademark mustache -- somberly take in his punishment.

"There was no justice here," Guzman declared in Spanish, expressing no regret as he delivered what were likely his final public words before he is taken to a supermax federal prison to live out his days.

When entering and before leaving the courtroom, he touched his heart and blew a kiss to his wife Emma Coronel, who was barred from all contact with him during more than two years of pre-trial detention.

The charges against Guzman, which include money laundering and weapons-related offenses, carried a mandatory life sentence.

US Federal Judge Brian Cogan tacked 30 years onto the sentence and ordered the drug lord to pay $12.6 billion in forfeiture -- a sum based on a conservative estimate of revenues from his cartel's sales in the United States.

So far, US authorities have not recovered a dime.

In the Brooklyn courtroom, Guzman said prayers from supporters had given him "strength to endure this great torture," which he called "one of the most inhuman that I have ever experienced... A lack of respect for my human dignity."

Complaining bitterly that he was unable to hug his twin daughters, who did not attend the hearing, Guzman said "the United States is no better than any other corrupt country that you do not respect."

Guzman -- whose moniker "El Chapo" translates to "Shorty" -- is considered the most influential drug lord since Colombia's Pablo Escobar, who was killed in a police shootout in 1993.

During his three-month trial in New York, jurors heard evidence from 56 government witnesses, who described the cartel boss beating, shooting and even burying alive those who crossed him, including informants and rival gang members.

Prosecutors won their request to tack on a symbolic extra 30 years in prison for the use of firearms in his business, which Cogan said he imposed because the "overwhelming evil is so severe."

A Colombian woman who prosecutors say survived a hit the kingpin ordered tearfully read a statement in court Wednesday, saying the escape cost her "a high price -- I lost my family, my friends, I became a shadow without a name."

Guzman launched his career working in the cannabis fields of his home state of Sinaloa. He will likely spend his remaining years at the "Alcatraz of the Rockies" -- the supermax federal prison in Florence, Colorado.

Current inmates include convicted "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski, Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols, the British "shoe bomber" Richard Reid and the Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is awaiting execution.

Since his 2017 extradition from Mexico, Guzman had repeatedly lamented the conditions of his solitary confinement at a Manhattan high-security prison, notably that his windowless cell was constantly lit.

Speaking to AFP prior to the proceedings, Guzman's lawyer William Purpura said: "I think he is in a good state of mind right now," adding his client was "looking forward to his appeal." His attorneys now have 14 days to appeal his sentence.

But Richard Donoghue, the US attorney for the Eastern District of New York, vowed Guzman would remain in US prison for good.

"Never again will Guzman pour poison over our borders making billions while innocent lives are lost to drug violence and drug addiction."

The sentencing was met with mixed reactions on Guzman's home turf, where some credit the drug lord with building beneficial public infrastructure like roads and schools.

In Sinaloa's capital Culiacan, 46-year-old Lupita Ramos told AFP Guzman "was also a good person who helped people in need."

Miguel Angel Vega, a journalist and drug trafficking expert, said the US incarceration of Guzman, who spectacularly escaped twice from Mexican prison, would do little to end the violence plaguing the region.

"The Sinaloa cartel is not 'El Chapo,'" he said. "In Culiacan there are 20 Chapos."

New York's special narcotics prosecutor Bridget Brennan did acknowledge that removing El Chapo from the equation did not diminish the Sinaloa cartel's heavy influence on drug pathways into the US.

Still, New York's head special agent for Homeland Security Investigations Angel Melendez said the sentencing marked "the end of the line."

"The sentence separates the myth of El Chapo from the man Joaquin Guzman," Melendez said. "It's a reality, he'll never be able to escape."

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