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El Chapo Trial Has Yet to Reveal Mexico’s Dark Secrets of Narco-Corruption

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For a moment, the trial of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the Mexican drug lord known as El Chapo, seemed like it might turn into a kind of truth-and-reconciliation commission that would reveal, not only the details about the defendant’s life of crime, but also secrets about narco-corruption in Mexico.

But after a flurry of prosecution filings and rulings by the judge in the first three weeks, it now appears unlikely the trial will become a sweeping exposé on bribery. The jury has heard plenty so far about payoffs to the Mexican police and politicians, but there is much they have not heard — and probably never will.

Setting limits on evidence at criminal trials is common in order to focus on specific charges against specific individuals. But the limits placed on the evidence in this case seem to counter a deep desire in Mexico for a public airing of the sins of its law-enforcement and political establishments in a longstanding drug war.

“I had really big expectations,” said Daniel Ortiz de Montellano Vasquez, a compliance officer at a currency exchange at the Mexico City airport. But at least so far, he said, those expectations have not been met.

“We are fed up with this game,” Mr. Montellano Vasquez added, saying he had hoped the trial would have been an event that “doesn’t let impunity win.”

Perhaps the most prominent restriction on evidence in the case came last week when Judge Brian M. Cogan decided that a star government witness could not testify about paying at least $6 million in bribes to one of Mexico’s presidents. Though the president was never identified, Judge Cogan ruled that the allegation would needlessly embarrass certain “individuals and entities” and would also serve as a distraction from the central task of the trial, deciding Mr. Guzmán’s guilt or innocence.

In the past week, the judge issued other rulings curtailing witness testimony also involving evidence of possible corruption. The exact nature of that evidence has been hard to discern because Judge Cogan’s rulings have been heavily redacted.

One ruling refers to “Cooperating Witness 1,” or CW1, who worked for Mr. Guzmán from 2006-2014. Judge Cogan decided that while CW1 would be allowed to testify about paying off Mexican officials with “quantities of cocaine,” he would not be permitted to talk about paying a $10,000 bribe to free himself from jail after being arrested. That evidence was excluded from the trial, the judge explained, because of the “bribe’s connection to” — and here the ruling was redacted.

A separate order discussed a witness identified as “CW3,” who will be allowed to testify about paying the Mexican federal highway police to “escort a drug load” and about giving “a high-level Mexican politician a $300,000 interest-free loan,” Judge Cogan ruled. But Judge Cogan will not allow him to testify about bribing a prosecutor to drop a criminal charge he was facing.

Some of these restrictions seem to have been designed in part to circumscribe the aggressive defense strategy Mr. Guzmán’s lawyers adopted at the start of the trial. In their opening statement, the lawyers argued that the real mastermind of the Sinaloa drug cartel was Mr. Guzmán’s former partner, Ismael Zambada García. In a stunning claim, they said Mr. Zambada worked for years to scapegoat Mr. Guzmán, plotting a vast conspiracy with “crooked” American drug agents and compromised Mexican officials, including the country’s “current and former” presidents.

It remains unclear whether Mr. Guzmán’s lawyers will try to introduce evidence about corruption among American law-enforcement agents — or how Judge Cogan will react if they do. The judge has already shut down efforts by the defense to question witnesses about Operation Fast and Furious, a controversial federal law-enforcement program in which American officials lost track of hundreds of weapons while investigating a gun-smuggling network linked to Mexican drug traffickers.

These repeated battles over evidence reflect the question of who the trial is really being held for. Strictly speaking, the only audience that matters are the 18 jurors hearing the case.

But the trial has generated enormous public interest. By limiting the evidence about corruption, Judge Cogan may be helping prosecutors keep the jurors focused on Mr. Guzmán. But he also appears to be frustrating the audience outside the courtroom — especially in Mexico.

And who knows when United States prosecutors will have another opportunity to look so closely at the inner workings of a major Mexican drug cartel.

“I understand that the intention of El Chapo’s trial is to judge the big Mexican drug lord,” said Bianca Salces, a 45-year-old actress and comedian from Mexico City.

But, Ms. Salces added, the trial was also “important for understanding our past and present history, and to bring justice and peace to a devastated country.”

To Carlos Aguirre Ley, a 40-year-old engineer from Veracruz, the trial is an opportunity to finally expose the ties between “narcos, money and power” in his country — or, as he put it, to “spit all the truth.”

While the process might be painful, he said, it was also valuable.

“A trip into the bowels of the beast is worth it,” he said.


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