Drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman on Friday pleaded not guilty to charges that he ran the world’s largest drug-trafficking organisation during a decades-long criminal career.
Guzman, 59, once one of the world’s most wanted drug lords, appeared in a US federal court in Brooklyn, New York after his surprise extradition from Mexico. He was accompanied by two court-appointed lawyers.
After US Magistrate Judge James Orenstein asked Guzman if he understood the accusations against him, he responded through a Spanish interpreter, “Well, I didn’t know until now.” Later, when asked again, Guzman said he understood.
An additional hearing was scheduled for February 3.
The indictment in Brooklyn against Guzman, with 17 criminal counts, carries a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison, Robert Capers, the US attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said at a news conference earlier in the day.
US prosecutors have more than 40 witnesses ready to testify against Guzman, Capers told reporters. The eventual trial will likely last “many” weeks, he said.
“Who is Chapo Guzman? In short, he’s a man known for no other life but a life of crime, violence, death and destruction, and now he’ll have to answer to that,” Capers said.
As leader of the notorious Sinaloa cartel, Guzman oversaw perhaps the world’s largest transnational cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine smuggling operation, playing a key role in Mexico’s decade-long drug war that has killed over 100,000 people.
El Chapo was captured a year ago after he had fled a high-security penitentiary in central Mexico through a mile-long tunnel, his second dramatic prison escape.
After court on Friday, he was being sent to a federal jail in New York City that holds prisoners who have pending cases. US authorities, citing security concerns, declined to say where he would be held for the months before trial, but they vowed to prevent any further escapes.
“I assure you, no tunnel will be built leading to his bathroom,” Special Agent In Charge Angel Melendez of US Homeland Security Investigations said at the news conference.
Guzman’s lawyers promised a zealous defence to ensure he receives a fair trial, and they said they would examine whether Guzman was extradited appropriately.
Best known by the nickname “El Chapo”, or “Shorty” in Spanish, the diminutive Guzman was extradited on the eve of Barack Obama’s last day in office.
Some officials said it was an olive branch to newly inaugurated US President Donald Trump, who had said he would kick Guzman’s “ass” after taking office. But some Mexican officials pointed out that Guzman’s extradition came hours before Barack Obama’s term ended in a nod to the outgoing president.
The Mexican attorney general’s office rejected claims the move was related to Trump’s swearing-in, noting that Guzman faces 10 pending cases in Mexico following his US sentence.
US prosecutors gave assurances to Mexican officials that they would not seek the death penalty in order to secure his extradition, Capers said. Mexico opposes capital punishment.
Guzman arrived in a small jet at Long Island’s MacArthur Airport after nightfall on Thursday from a prison in Juarez in the northern state of Chihuahua,in Mexico, where his cartel rules.