By Brendan Pierson
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A lawyer for accused Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman told a New York jury in opening remarks that his client was a scapegoat for the real leader of Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada.
"He's blamed for being the leader while the real leaders are living freely and openly in Mexico," attorney Jeffrey Lichtman said on the first day of Guzman's trial for drug smuggling in Brooklyn federal court, which is expected to last up to four months. "In truth he controlled nothing. Mayo Zambada did."
Lichtman also said that Zambada had been left free because he "bribes the entire government of Mexico including up to the very top, the current president of Mexico," Enrique Pena Nieto.
Pena Nieto's spokesman said of the accusation: "That is false."
Lichtman's statement came after Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Fels laid out the U.S. government's case, describing how prosecutors would prove that Guzman rose from a low-level marijuana trafficker in the 1970s to lead the powerful Sinaloa Cartel.
Fels said that Guzman, 61, eventually established relationships with Colombian cartels that allowed him to make billions of dollars moving cocaine. He said jurors would see evidence of seized cocaine shipments adding up to "more than a line of cocaine for every single person in the United States."
Fels told jurors that Guzman left a trail of violence, turning parts of Mexico into war zones as he fought rivals to expand his reach. He said jurors would hear of how Guzman personally shot two members of a rival cartel and ordered them thrown into holes and burned.
Guzman faces 17 criminal counts and a possible life sentence if he is convicted.
The prosecutors' witnesses are expected to include former Guzman associates who are now cooperating with the U.S. government in exchange for more favourable treatment, likely including Zambada's brother Jesus "El Rey" Zambada and son Vicente Zambada.
Lichtman spent much of his opening statement attacking their credibility.
"Why is the government going so far in this case using these gutter human beings as the evidence?" he asked. "It's because the conviction of Chapo Guzman is the biggest prize this prosecution could ever dream of."
Lichtman urged jurors to "keep an open mind" and consider that both Mexican and U.S. law enforcement could be corrupt.
"They work together when it suits them, Mayo (Zambada) and the United States government," he said.
Lichtman also strove to humanize the defendant, describing his childhood selling oranges, cheese and bread door to door in a poor village.
Tuesday's opening statements were delayed by hours when two of the jurors chosen last week dropped out of the case, forcing lawyers and U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan to select two new jurors. Lichtman did not finish his statement and is expected to resume Wednesday.
Guzman, who twice dramatically escaped from Mexican maximum security prisons, has been kept in solitary confinement in Manhattan. His trial is surrounded by extraordinary security measures, with jurors escorted to and from court by armed federal marshals.
In addition to Lichtman, Guzman's lawyers at the trial include Eduardo Balarezo and William Purpura, who previously defended Mexican drug lord Alfredo Beltran Leyva, once a partner and later a rival of Guzman. Beltran Leyva pleaded guilty to U.S. drug charges and was sentenced to life in prison by a federal judge in Washington last year.
(Reporting by Brendan Pierson, additional reporting by Anthony Esposito in Mexico City; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Rosalba O'Brien)