First asylum seekers returned from Mexico for U.S. court hearings

Honduran migrant Ariel, 19, who is waiting for his court hearing for asylum seekers returned to Mexico to wait out their legal proceedings under a new policy change by the U.S. government, is pictured after an interview with Reuters in Tijuana, Mexico March 18, 2019. Picture taken March 18, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes

By Lizbeth Diaz and Mica Rosenberg

TIJUANA/NEW YORK (Reuters) – A group of asylum seekers sent back to Mexico was set to cross the border on Tuesday for their first hearings in U.S. immigration court in an early test of a controversial new policy from the Trump administration.

The U.S. program, known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), turns people seeking protection in the United States around to wait out their U.S. court proceedings in Mexican border towns. Some 240 people – including families – have been returned since late January, according to U.S. officials.

Court officials in San Diego referred questions about the number of hearings being held on Tuesday to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which did not respond to a request for comment. But attorneys representing a handful of clients were preparing to appear in court.

Migrants like 19-year-old Ariel, who said he left Honduras because of gang death threats against himself and his family, were preparing to line up at the San Ysidro port of entry first thing Tuesday morning.

Ariel, who asked to use only his middle name because of fears of reprisals in his home country, was among the first group of asylum-seeking migrants sent back to Mexico on Jan. 30 and given a notice to appear in U.S. court in San Diego.

“God willing everything will move ahead and I will be able to prove that if I am sent back to Honduras, I’ll be killed,” Ariel said.

While awaiting his U.S. hearing, Ariel said he was unable to get a legal work permit in Mexico but found a job as a restaurant busboy in Tijuana, which does not pay him enough to move out of a shelter.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other advocacy groups are suing in federal court to halt the MPP program, which is part of a series of measures the administration of President Donald Trump has taken to try to curb the flow of mostly Central American migrants trying to enter the United States.

The Trump administration says most asylum claims, especially for Central Americans, are ultimately rejected, but because of crushing immigration court backlogs people are often released pending resolution of their cases and live in the United States for years. The government has said the new program is aimed at ending “the exploitation of our generous immigration laws.”

Critics of the program say it violates U.S. law and international norms since migrants are sent back to often dangerous towns in Mexico in precarious living situations where it is difficult to get notice about changes to U.S. court dates and to find legal help.

Immigration advocates are closely watching how the proceedings will be carried out this week, especially after scheduling glitches created confusion around three hearings last week, according to a report in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which runs U.S. immigration courts under the Department of Justice, said only that it uses its regular court scheduling system for the MPP hearings and did not respond to a question about the reported scheduling problems.

Gregory Chen, director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said there are real concerns about the difficulties of carrying out this major shift in U.S. immigration policy.

“The government did not have its shoes tied when they introduced this program,” he said.

(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Tijuana and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Editing by Bill Trott)

In Mexican heartland, ‘bad guys’ still hold sway amid bid to restore order

By Lizbeth Diaz

SANTA ROSA DE LIMA, Mexico (Reuters) – Burned-out autos littered empty streets this week in the town where Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador faces a first major test of his ability to take control of territory absorbed by organized crime during years of mounting violence.

Lopez Obrador said on Wednesday he was winning the battle for hearts and minds against a gang of fuel thieves in the central town of Santa Rosa de Lima, a few miles east of Salamanca, home to one of Mexico’s main oil refineries, and close to a center of the nation’s export-driven auto industry.

But in the grimy settlement of some 2,800 people where authorities say the eponymous Santa Rosa de Lima gang paid residents to obstruct marines and federal police with blockades and burning vehicles and by informing on their movements, some were less certain the government had the upper hand.

Police officers patrol a street after a blockade set by members of the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel to repel security forces during an anti-fuel theft operation in Santa Rosa de Lima, in Guanajuato state, Mexico, March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

Police officers patrol a street after a blockade set by members of the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel to repel security forces during an anti-fuel theft operation in Santa Rosa de Lima, in Guanajuato state, Mexico, March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

“It’s very hard for people to change,” said Pedro Mendez, 52, who sells household goods in the town. “The bad guys know how to get to them and that there are people who’ll take money to do their bidding.”

Others accused security forces of damaging private property and breaking car windows in the raids, while denying they were in cahoots with the gangs.

Santa Rosa is a microcosm of the lawlessness that permeates large swathes of Mexico where cartels have for years replaced the state as benefactors, providing jobs and handouts in return for residents’ loyalty.

It lies in Guanajuato state, part of the country’s industrial heartland that was long peaceful and is a major magnet for carmakers such as Volkswagen, General Motors and Toyota, but that suffered a doubling of murders last year, official data shows.

The effort to capture gang leader Jose Antonio Yepez, known as “El Marro,” or “The Mallet,” and blamed for stealing vast quantities of fuel from the Salamanca refinery, is also a test of the government’s ability to end organized crime’s growing threat to legitimate businesses and ordinary citizens.

Fuel theft costing billions of dollars a year, along with dwindling output, has weighed heavily on state oil firm Pemex, threatening to damage the government’s creditworthiness.

This week, ratings agency Moody’s warned that “increasing insecurity, robbery and travel warnings hurt Mexican companies’ top lines.”

ONLY ONE BOSS

Lopez Obrador’s determination to reassert the government as the main provider of services in anarchic regions is an early hallmark of his presidency, which began on Dec. 1.

He set his sights on fuel theft soon after taking office, turning off oil pipelines and risking a public backlash as lines began to form outside gas stations.

Days after the country’s most famous gangster, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, was convicted in a U.S. court, Lopez Obrador became the first president in decades to visit his home town, cutting the ribbon on a road project.

This week he addressed the violence in Santa Rosa by again urging Mexicans to reject criminal handouts.

“If you need work because of a lack of job opportunities, if you need welfare support, you can depend on us,” he said on Tuesday. “We’re the ones who offer you this.”

His rising popularity in opinion polls suggest Mexicans back the efforts so far.

“HARD TO CHANGE PEOPLE”

Eduardo Solis, head of Mexico’s automotive industry lobby, said on Wednesday the situation in Guanajuato was threatening business and had the look of a “crisis.”

Security has sharply deteriorated in the gangland struggle to control fuel rackets, and at 2,609 last year, murders in Guanajuato were over 10 times higher than a decade earlier, official data show.

Hundreds of police and armed forces arrived in Santa Rosa on Sunday to restore order and round up members of the gang.

Yepez has so far evaded detention, though federal forces arrested his sister-in-law, alleged to be his finance chief, along with six others on Tuesday, a security official said.

By Wednesday, the president was saying Santa Rosa had begun to reject the gang’s largesse, which locals said they heard included payments of 1,000 pesos ($52) or more. The burning blockades and protests vanished on Wednesday.

Among evidence authorities have found in raids was a wage envelope stamped with what appeared to be a symbol of a mallet, reading: “Relatives should go out to protest when required.”

Though reluctant to speak of fuel theft, several residents said they had seen El Marro and that the town was peaceful until “outsiders” began to arrive a few years ago.

Guanajuato’s governor, Diego Sinhue, estimated that around 300 people helped set fire to vehicles, although he defended the town against its infamy as a crime hotbed.

“I’m afraid to go out. If I leave the house something could happen to me because I can see the government’s angry,” said Estela Mendoza, a 44-year-old grandmother, speaking through a hatch in the door of the modest house she shares with her family and which she said she had not left since Sunday.

(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz; Additional reporting by Sharay Angulo; Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Leslie Adler)

Venezuela hit with new U.S. sanctions after aid clashes

By Roberta Rampton and Luis Jaime Acosta

BOGOTA (Reuters) – The United States targeted Venezuela’s government with new sanctions on Monday and called on allies to freeze the assets of its state-owned oil company PDVSA after deadly violence blocked aid from reaching the crisis-hit country during the weekend.

The United States also took its pressure campaign to the United Nations Security Council, asking that body to discuss the situation in Venezuela, diplomats said.

The U.S. Treasury Department’s sanctions were imposed on four Venezuelan state governors allied with the government of embattled President Nicolas Maduro, blocking any assets they control in the United States.

The new sanctions were announced in Bogota as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and opposition leader Juan Guaido met with members of the Lima Group, a bloc of nations from Argentina to Canada dedicated to peaceful resolution of the Venezuelan crisis.

Pence said the United States would stand by Guaido until freedom was restored to the oil-rich nation. He called for all Lima Group nations to immediately freeze PDVSA’s assets and to transfer ownership of “Venezuelan”assets “in their countries” from “Maduro’s henchmen” to Guaido’s government-in-waiting.

He also said tougher measures were coming.

“In the days ahead … the United States will announce even stronger sanctions on the regime’s corrupt financial networks,” Pence said. “We will work with all of you to find every last dollar that they stole and work to return it to Venezuela.”

Guaido, sitting next to Pence at the meeting, asked for a moment of silence for those killed in what he called the “massacre” of the weekend.

At least three people were killed and almost 300 wounded during the protests and clashes on Saturday as U.S.-backed aid convoys attempted to enter Venezuela to deliver food and medicine.

Guaido, recognized by most Western nations as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, has urged the bloc to consider “all options” in ousting Maduro.

Unlike the Lima Group, of which the United States is not a member, the Trump administration has so far declined to rule out the use of military force. But Peruvian Deputy Foreign Minister Hugo de Zela Martinez denied there was any division in the group over the use of force.

Pence also called for Mexico and Uruguay, two-left leaning regional governments, to join most of the region’s other powers in embracing Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful president.

Washington wants the 15-member U.N. Security Council to formally call for free, fair and credible presidential elections with international observers. Russia, which along with China has major investments in Venezuela’s energy sector and back Maduro, proposed a rival draft resolution.

Violence escalated during the weekend when the convoy of trucks with food and medicines was blocked by soldiers and armed groups loyal to Maduro. He says the aid efforts are part of a U.S.-orchestrated coup against the OPEC member.

In the Venezuelan town of San Antonio, near the border with Colombia, residents on Monday chafed at the continued border closure ordered by Maduro’s government last week.

Residents increasingly cross into the neighboring country to work and buy basic goods that are unavailable in Venezuela, which has been wracked by years of hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine. Illegal crossings over back roads known as “trochas” generally require paying tolls to low-level criminals who control them, known as “trocheros.”

“We were hungry when before the border closed. Now it will be even worse,” said Belkis Garcia, 34, walking with her husband along a trail that leads to Colombia. “We have to pay (to cross), so the little money we have for half the food is not enough. We don’t know what will happen if the border continues closed.”

Four people have been killed, 58 have suffered bullet wounds and at least 32 arrested in unrest since Friday, local rights group Penal Forum said in a press conference.

The four governors sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury include the flamboyant Rafael Lacava of state of Carabobo, who in 2018 visited Washington as part of talks that led to the release of Joshua Holt, an American who was imprisoned in Venezuela for nearly two years. Lacava goes by the nickname “Dracula” in reference to his habit of doing late-night patrols and is known for off-the-cuff social media videos.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta, Roberta Rampton, Helen Murphy and Julia Symmes Cobb; Additional reporting by Mitra Taj in Lima, Aislinn Laing in Santiago, Lisandra Paraguassu in Brasilia, Mayela Armas and Anggy Polanco in Urena, and Shaylim Castro in Caracas; Writing by Helen Murphy and Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Bill Trott)

Mexico’s ‘El Chapo’ found guilty in U.S. drug trial

FILE PHOTO: Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted by soldiers during a presentation at the hangar belonging to the office of the Attorney General in Mexico City, Mexico January 8, 2016. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido/File Photo

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The world’s most infamous cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who rose from poverty in rural Mexico to run a global drug empire and amass billions of dollars, was found guilty in a U.S. court on Tuesday of drug trafficking.

Jurors in federal court in Brooklyn found Guzman, 61, guilty on all 10 counts. He faces a possible sentence of life in prison.

One of the major figures in Mexican drug wars that have roiled the country since 2006, Guzman was extradited to the United States for trial in 2017 after he was arrested in Mexico the year before.

Guzman sat and showed no emotion while the verdict was read. Once the jury left the room, he and his wife put their hands to their hearts and gave each other the thumbs up sign.

Though other high-ranking cartel figures had been extradited previously, Guzman was the first to go to trial instead of pleading guilty.

The trial, which featured testimony from more than 50 witnesses, offered the public an unprecedented look at the inner workings of the Sinaloa Cartel, named for the state in northwestern Mexico where Guzman was born in a poor mountain village.

The legend of Guzman was burnished by two dramatic escapes he made from Mexican prisons and by a “Robin Hood” image he cultivated among Sinaloa’s poor.

U.S. prosecutors said he trafficked tons of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine into the United States over more than two decades, consolidating his power in Mexico through murders and wars with rival cartels.

Small in stature, Guzman’s nickname means “Shorty.” His smuggling exploits, the violence he used and the sheer size of his illicit business made Guzman the world’s most notorious drug baron since Colombia’s Pablo Escobar, who was shot dead by police in 1993.

Guzman’s lawyers say he was set up as a “fall guy” by Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, a powerful drug lord from Sinaloa who remains at large.

In a statement after the verdict, lawyers for El Chapo said they were “obviously disappointed” but respectful of the jury’s decision. “We were faced with extraordinary and unprecedented obstacles in defending Joaquin, including his detention in solitary confinement,” the statement said.

DRUG WARS

Mexico has been mired for 12 years in a deadly military-led war against drug gangs. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was elected last year after promising a change, suggesting a negotiated peace and amnesty for non-violent drug dealers, traffickers and farmers.

The most detailed evidence against Guzman came from more than a dozen former associates who struck deals to cooperate with U.S. prosecutors.

Through them, jurors heard how the Sinaloa Cartel gained power amid the shifting allegiances of the Mexican drug trade in the 1990s, eventually coming to control almost the entire Pacific coast of Mexico.

They heard how Guzman made a name for himself in the 1980s as “El Rapido,” the speedy one, by building cross-border tunnels that allowed him to move cocaine from Mexico into the United States faster than anyone else.

The witnesses, who included some of Guzman’s top lieutenants, a communications engineer and a onetime mistress, described how he built a sophisticated organization reminiscent of a multinational corporation, with fleets of planes and boats, detailed accounting ledgers and an encrypted electronic communication system run through secret computer servers in Canada.

A former bodyguard testified that he watched Guzman kill three rival drug cartel members, including one victim who he shot and then ordered to be buried even as he was still gasping for air.

Estimates of how much money Guzman made from drugs vary. In 2009, Forbes Magazine put him on its list of the world’s richest people, with an estimated $1 billion. It later dropped him from the list, saying it was too difficult to quantify his assets.

The U.S. Justice Department said in 2017 it sought forfeiture of more than $14 billion in drug proceeds and illicit profits from Guzman.

The trial also featured extensive testimony about corruption in Mexico, most of it involving bribes to law enforcement, military and local government officials so the cartel could carry out its day-to-day drug shipping operations undisturbed.

The most shocking allegation came from Guzman’s former top aide Alex Cifuentes, who accused former Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto of taking a $100 million bribe from Guzman. A spokesman for the ex-president has denied the claim.

In one of the trial’s final days, Guzman told the judge he would not testify in his own defense. The same day, he grinned broadly at audience member Alejandro Edda, the Mexican actor who plays Guzman in the Netflix drama “Narcos.”

Despite his ties to government officials, Guzman often lived on the run. Imprisoned in Mexico in 1993, he escaped in 2001 hidden in a laundry cart and spent the following years moving from one hideout to another in the mountains of Sinaloa, guarded by a private army.

He was seized and imprisoned again in 2014, but pulled off his best known escape the following year when he disappeared into a tunnel dug into his cell in a maximum security prison.

But the Mexican government says he blew his cover through a series of slip ups, including an attempt to make a movie about his life. He was finally recaptured in January 2016 following a shootout in Sinaloa.

(Reporting by Brendan Pierson, Tina Bellon and Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Alistair Bell and Grant McCool)

Border Patrol overwhelmed by large groups of migrant families

Agents of El Paso Sector U. S. Border Patrol conduct a Mobile Field Force training exercise in the Anapra area of Sunland Park, New Mexico, as seen from the Mexican side of the border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico January 31, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

(Reuters) – U.S. Border Patrol said on Friday its resources were being stretched thin by larger and larger groups of Central American families left by smugglers in remote locations along the U.S. Mexico border.

So far in fiscal year 2019, which began last October, the Border Patrol has apprehended 60 groups of 100 or more migrants, compared with 13 during the entire 2018 fiscal year and just two large groups caught in the 2017 fiscal year, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official said on a call with reporters.

Until recently, most people caught crossing the border illegally were men from Mexico, but now Central American families and unaccompanied minors make up some 60 percent of those apprehended, data from the agency show.

Facilities built decades ago are struggling to cope with the influx of migrant families, many with young children, who are often in need of medical care.

“Large bus loads of individuals are being bussed up to the border and we don’t have any infrastructure in that area,” the official said on the call with reporters.

Many of the migrants who may seek passage with smugglers in their journey through Mexico cross the border and turn themselves into U.S. authorities to seek asylum in the United States, a drawn-out court process that can take months or years to resolve.

The border patrol official said smugglers drop off large groups as a diversion tactic to tie up law enforcement resources in order to move drugs across other parts of the border.

The Trump administration has tried to curb access to asylum, including by starting a program that would require applicants to wait out their legal proceedings in Mexico.

Human rights advocates say increased border security and daily quotas put on asylum requests at ports of entry are among factors pushing large groups of migrants to cross the border in risky, remote areas.

Just how dangerous these crossings can be was highlighted in December when a 7-year-old girl from Guatemala died in U.S. custody after she and her father crossed in a large group in a remote area of New Mexico. Weeks later, an 8-year-old Guatemalan boy died after crossing the border with his father near El Paso, Texas.

Overall, illegal crossings at the southern border have dropped dramatically compared to previous decades but in recent years the number of families and unaccompanied children heading to the United States has increased.

 

(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York; writing by Andrew Hay in New Mexico; Editing by Leslie Adler)

As opium poppies bloom, Mexico seeks to halt heroin trade

Soldiers cut opium poppies as they destroy a field of illegal plantation in the Sierra Madre del Sur, in the southern state of Guerrero, Mexico, August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

By Lizbeth Diaz

JUQUILA YUCUCANI (Reuters) – In the mountains of Mexico’s tropical Sierra, an ever-growing expanse of pink poppy flowers has pushed prices so low for opium paste, the gummy raw ingredient of heroin, that farmer Santiago Sanchez worries how he will feed and clothe his family.

The area of Mexico that illegally farms opium poppies grew by more than one-fifth last year, to an area the size of Philadelphia, according to a U.N.-backed study published in November.

A soldier burns an illegal opium plantation near Pueblo Viejo in the Sierra Madre del Sur, in the southern state of Guerrero, Mexico, August 24, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

A soldier burns an illegal opium plantation near Pueblo Viejo in the Sierra Madre del Sur, in the southern state of Guerrero, Mexico, August 24, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

That, along with a trend toward mixing synthetic opiate fentanyl in Mexico’s tarry black heroin, has slashed what criminal gangs pay farmers like Sanchez for a kilo of opium. Now, Sanchez earns about $260 per kilo, a fifth of the average price two years ago.

While Mexico’s top drug traffickers still make billions of dollars supplying U.S. addicts, at the bottom of the supply chain, the villagers are hardly surviving.

“We can’t keep living like this,” said Sanchez, who is a local leader in the remote Mixtec Indian village of Juquila Yucucani, where hundreds of poppy farmers have seen already meager incomes shrivel. “We can barely afford our food.”

HEROIN TRADE

In the United States, overdose deaths from opioids have increased almost six-fold in the past two decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 15,000 people died of heroin overdoses in 2017 alone.

Heroin from Mexico accounted for 86 percent of the heroin found on U.S. streets, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s most recent annual narcotic report.

The heart of illegal poppy cultivation is in the hills of Guerrero state, in some of the poorest mountain districts – such as Juquila Yucucani, some 800 miles south of the U.S.-Mexican border. Guerrero is now among the country’s bloodiest states. 

Despite unprecedented violence across the country, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said last week that the government had “officially” ended its war against drug trafficking, a military-led offensive launched in 2006 that led to a surge in bloodshed as criminal groups splintered.

The government’s focus will now be on meeting the needs of marginalized communities, Lopez Obrador said, as part of a broader strategy to curb an illegal drug trade that is thriving despite the capture of high-profile kingpins like Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, who is on trial in New York for drug trafficking that spanned more than two decades.

Lopez Obrador has not entirely turned his back on using soldiers to tackle violence stemming from drugs – he plans to create a new militarized National Guard police force. But he is also exploring a crop substitution program, relaxing prohibition and amnesties for low-level drug dealers and farmers.

On a visit to Guerrero in January, Lopez Obrador pledged price supports for grains, including around $300 a tonne for corn, part of a strategy meant to give farmers alternatives to planting illicit crops.

“Here, in the hills, we are going to pay a little more, so that corn is planted and people are compensated for their effort. So that other crops are not planted,” he said.

Lopez Obrador has backed a legislative bill to legalize marijuana, and along with the former head of Mexico’s military and other members of his team, he suggested last autumn that legalizing medical opium could be part of the solution.

The government appears to be backing away from that idea after opposition from the United States.

“WE ARE NOT TRAFFICKERS”

The farmers in Juquila Yucucani do not consider themselves criminals and say current poppy eradication efforts by the army also sometimes destroy legal crops.

“They have killed the food crops that my family use to eat,” said Lazaro Lopez, 65, who said the military should apologize. Although Reuters could not independently verify Lopez’s account, human rights groups have documented military abuses in parts of Guerrero. The army did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

For Sanchez, who said his village would embrace legalization, crop substitution is a poor alternative.

Other than poppies, few plants take to the thin soil on Juquila Yucucani’s stony slopes. Some land is apt for planting mango or avocado trees, Sanchez said, but they would take years to mature. The narrow ribbon of twisted dirt road connecting the village to the outside world would make it almost impossible to transport bulky or delicate crops to markets, he added.

Arturo Garcia, a farmers rights activist in the state, said the government’s new ideas would only work if a really sustained and well-funded effort were made to offer residents a way out of the drug trade.

“The state must throw all its weight into this region so that it begins to alleviate the conditions that have allowed violence,” he said.

For now, several hours journey from the nearest hospitals or schools, Juquila Yucucani’s poppy farmers say they have two choices to make a living: sneak illegally into the United States, or grow poppies.

“We are not drug traffickers, we want a dignified life,” said elderly Nieves Garcia, who has grown poppies since she was a child and speaks a variant of the indigenous Mixtec language, but no Spanish. “My kids have left this place because there’s no way of getting ahead,” she said.   

For photo essay, please click on: https://reut.rs/2UJSwSF

(Writing by Michael O’Boyle and Frank Jack Daniel; Additional reporting by Michael O’Boyle; Editing by Diane Craft)

The rise and fall of ‘El Chapo,’ Mexico’s most wanted kingpin

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: Recaptured drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted by soldiers at the hangar belonging to the office of the Attorney General in Mexico City, Mexico January 8, 2016. REUTERS/Henry Romero/File Photo

By Dave Graham

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is Mexico’s most notorious kingpin who shipped tonnes of drugs around the world, escaped two maximum-security jails and became one of the world’s most-wanted fugitives.

He now faces the prospect of life in prison.

Jurors on Monday will begin deliberations on 10 criminal counts facing Guzman, 61, in the trial that began in November in New York.

The audacious exploits of El Chapo, or Shorty, captured the world’s imagination and turned him into a folk hero for some in Mexico, despite the thousands of people killed by his brutal Sinaloa cartel.

Beyond putting Guzman’s personal life and drug dealings on public display, the case has also highlighted Mexico’s long-time fight to bring down its chief adversary in the bloody war on drug trafficking.

In January 2016, after some three decades running drugs, Guzman was caught in his native northwestern state of Sinaloa.

Six months earlier, he had humiliated Mexico’s then-president, Enrique Pena Nieto, by escaping from prison through a mile-long tunnel dug straight into his cell – his second time escaping a Mexican jail.

Just days after his 2016 capture, Guzman’s larger-than-life reputation was sealed when U.S. movie star Sean Penn published a lengthy account of an interview he conducted with the drug lord, which the Mexican government said was “essential” to his capture a few months later.

“I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world. I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats,” Penn said Guzman told him at the drug lord’s mountain hideout.

Mexico’s government extradited Guzman in January 2017, a day before Donald Trump took office as U.S. president on vows to tighten border security to halt immigration and drug smuggling.

Guzman’s legendary reputation in the Mexican underworld began to take shape when he staged his first jailbreak in 2001 by bribing prison guards, before going on to dominate drug trafficking along much of the Rio Grande.

However, many in towns across Mexico remember Guzman better for his squads of hitmen who committed thousands of murders, kidnappings and decapitations.

Violence began to surge in 2006 as the government launched a war on drug trafficking that caused criminal groups to splinter and killings to spiral.

Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel went on smuggling hundreds of tons of cocaine, marijuana, and crystal meth across Mexico’s border with the United States.

In February 2013, the Chicago Crime Commission dubbed him the city’s first Public Enemy No.1 since Al Capone.

ELUSIVE KINGPIN

Security experts concede the 5 foot 6 inch gangster was exceptional at what he did, managing to outmaneuver, outfight or outbribe his rivals to stay at the top of the drug trade for over a decade.

Rising through the ranks of the drug world, Guzman carefully observed his mentors’ tactics and mistakes, forging alliances that kept him one step ahead of the law for years.

Mexican soldiers and U.S. agents came close to Guzman on several occasions but his layers of body guards and spies always tipped him off before they stormed his safe houses.

In preparing for a raid in 2014, U.S. officers restricted information to a small group for fear of corruption among Mexican law enforcement, DEA agent Victor Vasquez testified in Guzman’s trial.

SINALOA ROOTS

Guzman was born in La Tuna, a village in the Sierra Madre mountains in Sinaloa state where smugglers have been growing opium and marijuana since the early twentieth century.

He ascended in the 1980s working with Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, alias “The Boss of Bosses,” who pioneered cocaine smuggling routes into the United States.

The aspiring capo came to prominence in 1993 when assassins who shot dead Roman Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas claimed they had actually been aiming at Guzman.

Two weeks later, police arrested him in Guatemala and extradited him to Mexico. During his eight-year prison stay, Guzman smuggled in lovers, prostitutes and Viagra, according to accounts published in the Mexican media.

After escaping, Guzman expanded his turf by sending in assassin squads with names such as “The Ghosts” and “The Zeta Killers,” in reference to the rival Zetas gang.

Guzman hid near his childhood home, agents said, but rumors abounded of him visiting expensive restaurants and paying for all the diners.

In 2007, Guzman married an 18-year-old beauty queen in an ostentatious ceremony in a village in Durango state.

The state’s archbishop subsequently caused a media storm when he said that “everyone, except the authorities,” knew Guzman was living there. Guzman’s bride, Emma Coronel, gave birth to twins in Los Angeles in 2011. She attended nearly every day of her husband’s trial, at one point donning a red blazer that matched his own.

WAGING WAR

Between 2004 and 2013, Guzman’s gangs fought in all major Mexican cities on the U.S. border, turning Ciudad Juarez and Nuevo Laredo into some of the world’s most dangerous places.

In one such attack, 14 bodies were left mutilated under a note that read, “Don’t forget that I am your real daddy,” signed by “El Chapo.”

Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel often clashed with the Zetas, a gang founded by former Mexican soldiers, arming its crew with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns.

In 2008, hitmen working for a rival murdered Guzman’s son Edgar, a 22-year-old student. Guzman reportedly left 50,000 flowers at his son’s grave.

In the 1990s, Guzman became infamous for hiding seven tons of cocaine in cans of chili peppers. In the following decade, his crew took drugs in tractor trailers to major U.S. cities including Phoenix, Los Angeles and Chicago, indictments say.

Forbes magazine put the kingpin’s wealth at $1 billion, though investigators say it is impossible to know exactly how much he was worth.

(Reporting by Dave Graham and Mexico City Newsroom; Editing by Daina Beth Solomon and Alistair Bell)

Largest-ever U.S. border seizure of fentanyl made in Arizona: officials

Packets of fentanyl mostly in powder form and methamphetamine, which U.S. Customs and Border Protection say they seized from a truck crossing into Arizona from Mexico, is on display during a news conference at the Port of Nogales, Arizona, U.S., January 31, 2019. Courtesy U.S. Customs and Border Protection/Handout via REUTERS

By David Schwartz

PHOENIX (Reuters) – U.S. border agents have seized 254 pounds (115 kg) of fentanyl that was stashed in a truck crossing into Arizona from Mexico, marking the largest single bust of the powerful opioid ever made at an American border checkpoint, officials said on Thursday.

The 26-year-old Mexican driver of a cucumber-toting tractor-trailer was arrested after agents on Saturday at the border station in Nogales discovered the fentanyl in a secret compartment, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said.

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 100 times stronger than morphine that can kill with a 2-milligram dose, has been blamed for fueling an opioid crisis in the United States. It gained notoriety after an overdose of the painkiller was deemed to have killed pop singer Prince in 2016.

The United States had a record 72,000 deaths from drug overdoses in 2017, with opioids responsible for most of those fatalities. President Donald Trump has declared opioid addiction a public health emergency.

The latest seizure in Nogales is the largest-ever confiscation of fentanyl by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, officials said in a statement.

The fentanyl was worth an estimated $3.5 million, based on valuation criteria of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Hugo Nunez, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said in an email.

The drugs were found after the truck was pulled over for a secondary inspection and drug-sniffing canines picked up an odor, Michael Humphries, the Nogales Area Port director, told reporters.

The driver, Juan Antonio Torres-Barraza, was charged in federal court in Tucson with two counts of drug possession with the intent to distribute.

An attorney for Torres-Barraza could not immediately be reached for comment.

Another 395 pounds (180 kg) of methamphetamine, worth about $1.1 million, also was confiscated from the truck, officials said.

“Fentanyl is trafficked into the United States largely from China and Mexico but it is not possible to determine which country is a bigger supplier, the DEA said in a report in October.

The U.S. Department of Justice, in a report last year to the U.S. Congress, has said the drug is primarily shipped to the United States from China through cargo containers or international mail. But Chinese fentanyl is sometimes sent to criminal groups in Mexico or Canada and smuggled across the border, the report said.

Last month, Mexican officials busted a fentanyl lab in Mexico City.

(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Dan Grebler)

Trump says may declare an emergency for wall as little headway in talks

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting to "discuss fighting human trafficking on the southern border" in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., February 1, 2019. REUTERS/Jim Young

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Friday he might declare a national emergency to obtain funding to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico because it did not appear Democrats were moving toward a deal that would provide the money.

“We’re not getting anywhere with them,” Trump said during an event at the White House.

“I think there’s a good chance that we’ll have to do that,” he added, referring to the possibility of an emergency declaration that could allow him to use funds that Congress has approved for other purposes.

His comments came a day after Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, told reporters, “There’s not going to be any wall money” in legislation to fund border security for the rest of this year.

Pelosi said funding for more ports of entry or additional border security technology was open for negotiation. She added that the 17 House and Senate negotiators working on legislation to fund homeland security for the year should decide the components of the nation’s border security.

Democratic negotiators unveiled a detailed opening position containing no money for any type of additional physical barriers on the border to control the flow of undocumented immigrants and illegal drugs. Previously they had supported $1.3 billion for new fencing and improvements to existing barriers.

Trump has said he has to have a wall for border security.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Writing by David Alexander; Editing by Tim Ahmann)

‘El Chapo’ decided ‘who lives and who dies’ as drug boss, U.S. jury told

Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Goldbarg points at Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman (back row C) in this courtroom sketch during Guzman's trial in Brooklyn federal court in New York City, U.S., January 30, 2019. REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg

By Brendan Pierson

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was someone who decided “who lives and who dies,” a prosecutor said in closing arguments in the accused Mexican drug kingpin’s trial in the United States.

“The government does not have to prove that he was the boss, or the only boss, or even one of the top bosses,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Goldbarg told jurors, though she hastened to add that Guzman was “one of the top bosses, without a doubt.”

Guzman’s lawyers have claimed the cartel’s real leader is Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who remains at large, and that their client was framed by Zambada.

Standing in front of a table piled with trial evidence including assault rifles and bricks of cocaine, Goldbarg took a calm, no-nonsense approach as she walked the jury in federal court in Brooklyn through the charges against Guzman one by one.

Guzman, 61, was extradited to the United States in January 2017. The 10 criminal counts include engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise, drug trafficking and money laundering conspiracy, and a life sentence if he is found guilty.

Goldbarg’s summation capped an exhaustive government case that spanned 10 weeks of testimony from more than 50 witnesses, including law enforcement officials and former associates of Guzman who are cooperating with the U.S. government after striking plea deals.

Guzman’s lawyers have aggressively sought to undermine the cooperators’ credibility in their cross-examinations, something Goldbarg addressed head on.

“These witnesses were criminals,” she said. “The government is not asking you to like them.”

Accused Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman sits in court in this courtroom sketch during Guzman's trial in Brooklyn federal court in New York City, U.S., January 30, 2019. REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg

Accused Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman sits in court in this courtroom sketch during Guzman’s trial in Brooklyn federal court in New York City, U.S., January 30, 2019. REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg

However, she said, their testimony was corroborated by intercepted phone calls, text messages and letters from Guzman, as well as accounting ledgers seized in a raid on one of his safe houses.

“You know these cooperating witnesses are telling the truth because you heard the same thing from the defendant’s own mouth,” she said.

The intercepted communications showed Guzman plotting drug shipments, dealing with corrupt government officials and, sometimes, ordering his adversaries killed.

“He’s the one who decides who lives and who dies,” Goldbarg said.

Goldbarg then moved methodically through the evidence linking Guzman to each of a series of drug seizures by authorities in the 1990s and 2000s. Her argument is expected to last the rest of the day.

Guzman called only one witness in his defense on Tuesday. One of his lawyers is expected to deliver his closing argument on Thursday.

(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Anthony Lin and Grant McCool)