Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman will not take the stand at his own trial, the Mexican drug kingpin said Monday.
Speaking for the first time during his sweeping drug trafficking trial, Guzman, 61, told federal court Judge Brian Cogan, through an interpreter: “I will not testify.”
The judge’s question to Guzman on whether he would testify came moments after the prosecution rested, finishing its case after 11 weeks. More than 50 witnesses testified for the prosecution, many former leaders in the Sinaloa cartel, one of the world’s most powerful drug networks. The unprecedented trial has unearthed astonishing detail about the brutal, multibillion-dollar drug trade that Guzman ruled over.
Standing with his hands clasped at his waist, Guzman, wearing a navy suit, light blue shirt and dark blue tie, spoke respectfully to the judge.
“You have the absolute right to testify,” Cogan said. “You understand it’s your decision,” he said, adding that it was not the decision of Guzman’s lawyers.
“Yes, they counseled me about it, and I agreed,” Guzman said, confirming that he would not take the stand.
Defense lawyers — who’ve argued that Guzman has been framed by a vast conspiracy that includes U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents and those cartel lieutenants who’ve testified against him — are expected to call two law enforcement officials Tuesday morning. Those are the lone witnesses for their case.
One of the prosecution’s final witnesses, who began testimony Thursday and finished Monday, offered the most gruesome details of the case.
Isaias Valdez Rios, long Guzman’s bodyguard and one of his secretaries, testified in stark detail about three slayings he said Guzman carried out himself.
Valdez, 39, a former officer in the Mexican army, said he began working for Guzman in 2004 and later witnessed the full extent of his boss’ brutality.
At the end of 2006 or early 2007, he said, he and Guzman picked up a rival cartel member who had already been tortured by the kingpin’s people. The man had been burned with a clothes iron and had marks from a car lighter all over his body; his feet were so burned “he couldn’t walk,” Valdez said.
Guzman was angry that the damaged man was less useful for interrogation, and complained, “They should have just killed him,” Valdez testified. Nonetheless, Guzman ordered his men to put the rival in a “hen house,” the witness said.
After three days, Valdez told his boss that the man, rotting from his wounds, was beginning to smell, the witness said. “We told Mr. Guzman he had a pretty bad odor,” Valdez testified. “He was pretty much decomposing.”
Guzman told his men to start digging a grave. When it was finished, they brought the man, blindfolded and bound, to the hole. Guzman grabbed a gun and began yelling at the man, “interrogating him,” Valdez said, and as he blurted answers, Guzman shot him. The “person was still gasping for air,” Valdez said, but Guzman said to bury him, “and that’s how we dumped him,” Valdez testified.
Another time, Valdez said, they picked up two men from another rival gang, the Zetas. He said Guzman personally beat the men with a stick, for hours. Afterward “the people were like rag dolls,” he said. “All the bones in their bodies were fractured.” Guzman kept telling the men they were traitors for working with the Zetas. “How is it possible you’re working with these people,” Guzman told the men, Valdez testified. “You’re betraying us.”
Guzman ordered his men to dig a huge hole and build a bonfire inside; the Zetas were made to watch the blaze.
Guzman took out his handgun, placed it to one man’s head, cursed him, “and boom,” Valdez said. He did the same to the next man, Valdez said. Guzman then ordered his workers to make the fire bigger before they threw the men into it; “I don’t want any bones to remain,” Valdez testified.
Along with drug trafficking and firearms violations, Guzman faces charges of conspiracy to murder but has not been directly charged with murder.
Prosecutors will present their closing arguments Wednesday, followed by the defense’s closing Thursday. The jury is expected to begin deliberations Friday. Guzman faces life in prison.
Despite echoes of Valdez’s gruesome testimony being brought back up Monday by the defense on cross-examination, the day in court began on a much lighter note Monday morning.
Guzman, whose nickname means “Shorty,” was all smiles when he was informed of a special guest in the courtroom audience: Alejandro Edda, the actor who plays him on the Netflix series “Narcos: Mexico.”
Outside the courtroom during a midmorning break, Edda, 34, said being in the court had been “surreal.” Being so close to Guzman, he said, made “his hands sweaty” and his “heart beat fast.”
As Edda spoke to a small group of reporters, one of Guzman’s lawyers, William Purpura, passed by.
“He was happy you were here,” Purpura told Edda, referring to his client. “But he thought you’d be taller.”
Purpura smiled. “I’m just kidding.”
Plagianos is a special correspondent.