Saying they were bringing the world's most notorious drug lord to justice, U.S. prosecutors on Friday described Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman as the murderous architect of a three-decade-long web of violence, corruption and drug addiction and announced they were seeking a $14 billion forfeiture from him.
A public defender for Guzman pleaded not guilty to a sweeping 17-count indictment including drug trafficking and other charges in a federal court in Brooklyn Friday, a day after the drug kingpin was extradited to the city from Mexico. A hush fell over the courtroom moments before Guzman entered. He looked dazed and wore a dark blue T-shirt, dark blue pants and sneakers.
Guzman answered questions through an interpreter standing to his right and said he could understand the judge's English.
No bail was sought.
Prosecutors agreed to not seek the death penalty as a condition of the extradition of Guzman. They have sought to bring him to a U.S. court for years while he made brazen prison escapes and spent years on the run in Mexico.
"His story was not one of a do-gooder or a Robin Hood. Or even one of a famous escape artist who miraculously escaped from Mexican prisons on multiple occasions," said Robert Capers, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. "Guzman’s destructive and murderous rise as the international narcotics trafficker was akin to that of a small cancerous tumor that metastasized and grew into a full blown scourge that for decades littered the streets of Mexico with the casualties of violent drug wars over turf."
"And the same scourge helped to perpetrate the drug epidemic here in the U.S. and makes our cities such as Miami and New York ground zero for that epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s," Capers added.
As boss of the Sinaloa cartel, Guzman presided over a syndicate that shipped tons of heroin and cocaine to the U.S., using tanker trucks, planes with secret landing strips, container ships, speedboats and even submarines, prosecutors said. Perhaps most famously, Guzman's cartel built elaborate tunnels under the U.S. border to transport drugs, said Wifredo Ferrer, the U.S. attorney in Miami.
The cartel made billions of dollars in profits — hence prosecutors' bid for a $14 billion forfeiture — and employed hit men who carried out murders, kidnappings and acts of torture, according to prosecutors. The Sinaloa smugglers also helped fuel an epidemic of drug abuse in the U.S. in the 1980s and '90s, the prosecutors said.
It wasn't immediately clear who would represent Guzman in court; a lawyer is to be appointed. His lawyers in Mexico called his extradition, which he had fought, a political move to distract from gasoline protests there.
The Drug Enforcement Administration flew him to New York from the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez on Thursday — hours before the inauguration of President Donald Trump, who has criticized Mexico for sending the U.S. "criminals and rapists" and vowed to build a wall at the Mexican border.
When Guzman got off the plane, "as you looked into his eyes, you could see the surprise, you could see the shock, and to a certain extent, you could see the fear, as the realization kicked in that he's about to face American justice," said Angel Melendez, who leads U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's homeland security investigations in New York.
The U.S. has been trying to obtain custody of Guzman since he was first indicted in California in the early 1990s. Now in his late 50s, he faces the possibility of life in a U.S. prison. Prosecutors had to agree to not seek the death penalty as a condition of the extradition.
While he faces federal charges in several U.S. states, federal prosecutors in Brooklyn won the jockeying to get the case. The U.S. attorney's office there has substantial experience prosecuting international drug cartel cases and was once led by outgoing U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
Guzman was recaptured a year ago in Mexico after escaping from a maximum-security prison for a second time. The episode was highly embarrassing for President Enrique Pena Nieto's government, and Mexican officials were seen as eager to hand him off to the U.S.
U.S. officials said they didn't learn until Thursday that Mexico was extraditing Guzman. Thanking the Mexican government for its work, prosecutors refused to comment on whether politics played a role.
In Mexico, Deputy Attorney General Alberto Elias Beltran said the timing was due to a court ruling against Guzman's appeal, not to politics. But many considered the timing to have been carefully planned, and observers differed on whether Guzman's extradition was a final-hour salute to outgoing President Barack Obama or a gesture of obeisance to the incoming Trump.
After breaking out of prison the first time in 2001, Guzman spent more than a decade at large, becoming something of a folk legend among some Mexicans for his defiance of authorities. He was immortalized in ballads known as "narco-corridos."
Captured in 2014, Guzman then made an even more audacious escape, coolly stepping into a hole in the floor of his prison cell shower and whizzing to freedom on a motorcycle modified to run on tracks laid the length of the tunnel.
While on the run, he secretly met with actors Sean Penn and Kate del Castillo in a fall 2015 encounter that Penn later chronicled in Rolling Stone magazine.
In Penn's article, Guzman was unapologetic about his criminal activities, saying he had turned to drug trafficking at age 15 because it was "the only way to have money to buy food, to survive."
The piece was published shortly after Mexican marines rearrested Guzman in a January 2016 shootout that killed five of his associates and wounded one marine.