New York, Feb 13 (AP/UNB) — Mexico's most notorious drug lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, was convicted Tuesday of running an industrial-scale smuggling operation after a three-month trial packed with Hollywood-style tales of grisly killings, political payoffs, cocaine hidden in jalapeno cans, jewel-encrusted guns and a naked escape with his mistress through a tunnel.
Guzman listened to a drumbeat of guilty verdicts on drug and conspiracy charges that could put the 61-year-old escape artist behind bars for decades in a maximum-security U.S. prison selected to thwart another one of the breakouts that made him a folk hero in his native country.
A jury whose members' identities were kept secret as a security measure reached a verdict after deliberating six days in the expansive case. They sorted through what authorities called an "avalanche" of evidence gathered since the late 1980s that Guzman and his murderous Sinaloa drug cartel made billions in profits by smuggling tons of cocaine, heroin, meth and marijuana into the U.S.
As the judge read the verdict, Guzman stared at the jury, and his wife watched the scene, both with resignation in their faces. When the jurors were discharged and Guzman stood to leave the courtroom, the couple traded thumbs-ups.
U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan lauded the jury's meticulous attention to detail and the "remarkable" approach it took toward deliberations. Cogan said it made him "very proud to be an American."
Evidence showed drugs poured into the U.S. through secret tunnels or hidden in tanker trucks, concealed in the undercarriage of passenger cars and packed in rail cars passing through legitimate points of entry — suggesting that a border wall wouldn't be much of a worry.
The prosecution's case against Guzman, a roughly 5½-foot figure whose nickname translates to "Shorty," included the testimony of several turncoats and other witnesses. Among them were Guzman's former Sinaloa lieutenants, a computer encryption expert and a Colombian cocaine supplier who underwent extreme plastic surgery to disguise his appearance.
One Sinaloa insider described Mexican workers getting contact highs while packing cocaine into thousands of jalapeno cans — shipments that totaled 25 to 30 tons of cocaine worth $500 million each year. Another testified how Guzman sometimes acted as his own sicario, or hitman, punishing a Sinaloan who dared to work for another cartel by kidnapping him, beating and shooting him and having his men bury the victim while he was still alive, gasping for air.
The defense case lasted just half an hour. Guzman's lawyers did not deny his crimes as much as argue he was a fall guy for government witnesses who were more evil than he was.
In closing arguments, defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman urged the jury not to believe government witnesses who "lie, steal, cheat, deal drugs and kill people."
U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue called the conviction "a victory for the American people who suffered so much" while the defendant poured poison over the borders. He expected Guzman to get life without parole.
"It is a sentence from which there is no escape and no return," Donoghue told a news conference outside the courthouse, through snow and sleet.
He added: "There are those who say the war on drugs is not worth fighting. Those people are wrong."
Ray Donovan, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration's New York office, said the case underscored Guzman's true colors, showing that "the real Chapo is a ruthless killer and manipulator."
Lichtman said the defense "fought like complete savages" and will appeal the case. "No matter who the defendant is, you still have to fight to the death."
He said his client was a positive thinker who "doesn't give up."
Upon hearing the verdict, Guzman was "as cool as a cucumber," Lichtman added. "Honest to god, we were more upset than he was."
Deliberations were complicated by the trial's vast scope. Jurors were tasked with making 53 decisions about whether prosecutors had proven different elements of the case.
The trial cast a harsh glare on the corruption that allowed the cartel to flourish. Colombian trafficker Alex Cifuentes caused a stir by testifying that former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto took a $100 million bribe from Guzman. Peña Nieto denied it, but the allegation fit a theme: politicians, army commanders, police and prosecutors, all on the take.
The tension at times was cut by some of the trial's sideshows, such as the sight of Guzman and his wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, showing up in matching burgundy velvet blazers in a gesture of solidarity. Another day, a Chapo-size actor who played the kingpin in the TV series "Narcos: Mexico" came to watch, telling reporters that seeing the defendant flash him a smile was "surreal."
While the trial was dominated by Guzman's persona as a near-mythical outlaw who carried a diamond-encrusted handgun and stayed one step ahead of the law, the jury never heard from Guzman himself, except when he told the judge he wouldn't testify.
But his sing-songy voice filled the courtroom, thanks to recordings of intercepted phone calls. "Amigo!" he said to a cartel distributor in Chicago. "Here at your service."
One of the trial's most memorable tales came from girlfriend Lucero Guadalupe Sanchez Lopez, who testified she was in bed in a safe house with an on-the-run Guzman in 2014 when Mexican marines started breaking down his door. She said Guzman led her to a trap door beneath a bathtub that opened up to a tunnel that allowed them to escape.
Asked what he was wearing, she replied: "He was naked. He took off running. He left us behind."
The defendant had previously escaped from jail by hiding in a laundry bin in 2001. He then got an escort from crooked police officers into Mexico City before retreating to one of his many mountainside hideaways. In 2014, he pulled off another jail break, escaping through a mile-long lighted tunnel on a motorcycle on rails.
Even when Guzman was recaptured in 2016 before his extradition to the United States, he was plotting another escape, prosecutor Andrea Goldbarg said in closing arguments.
"Why? Because he is guilty and he never wanted to be in a position where he would have to answer for his crimes," she told the jury. "He wanted to avoid sitting right there. In front of you."
Rome, Feb 13 (AP/UNB) — Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte demanded "authentic" solidarity from Italy's European Union partners on the issue of migrants Tuesday, but drew sharp barbs himself from EU lawmakers for refusing to join a united European stand on Venezuela and over Italy's nasty spat with France.
Addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, Conte insisted his country's EU partners quit following what he called a "nationalistic logic" and instead take in some of the tens of thousands of economic migrants brought to Italy after rescue at sea but who are ineligible for asylum.
"Let's put into practice an authentic solidarity," said Conte, whose populist government includes a coalition partner that advocates "Italians first" policies in foreign affairs.
Christian Democrat leader Manfred Weber used the parliament's debate on the future of Europe to appeal to Conte for Italy to join the "common European approach" that recognizes Venezuelan congress leader Juan Guaido as his country's interim leader until a new presidential election is held in the South American nation.
"Guaido has asked Italy to recognize him. I think that you should answer Guaido if you think that there must be a common European approach" to issues, Weber said.
Earlier on Tuesday, Italy's foreign minister said in Rome that his government considers illegitimate last year's re-election of Nicolas Maduro as Venezuelan president but stopped short of joining EU recognition for Guaido's role.
In his retort, Conte contended that recognizing Guaido risked aggravating the South American nation's crisis by "crowning one actor over another."
The senior partner in Conte's government, the euro-skeptic 5-Star Movement, staunchly backed Maduro's predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez.
European lawmaker Udo Bullmann slammed the Italian-French diplomatic spat between the two major trading partners.
"In contests like these, no one comes out a winner. It's a classic lose-lose situation," Bullmann said during the debate.
Last week, Paris called back its ambassador from Rome after 5-Star chief Luigi Di Maio met in France with leaders of the yellow vest movement that has violently protested the policies of French President Emmanuel Macron. The French leader has derided Italy's populist policies as a "nationalist leprosy" eroding European unity.
Conte alluded to the spat, saying "bilateral quarrels represent more the effect than the cause of an inability of Europe to propose solutions" to the continent's problems.
Italy's populist parties are vowing to make populism the biggest force after the May elections for the European Parliament.
Conte scolded the European Union for "losing contact with its people and making ever more unfillable" the distance "between Brussels and the many peripheries of the continent."
Washington, Feb 13 (AP/UNB) — A top U.S. commander said Tuesday that he has not seen any effort by North Korea to curtail its nuclear weapons program since President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un met for nuclear talks last year.
Army Gen. Robert Abrams testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee ahead of Trump's second meeting with Kim later this month in Hanoi, Vietnam. The U.S. hopes North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for an end to punishing international sanctions.
Abrams called the second meeting a "positive sign of continued dialogue," but added, "We have not observed activity that's consistent with a full-court press on denuclearization."
He said there has been a reduction in tensions along the Korean Demilitarized Zone — the buffer zone between North and South Korea — and cited he North's decision to stop missile tests and other provocative actions, but said, "Little to no verifiable change has occurred in North Korea's military capabilities."
Abrams noted it has been some 440 days since North Korea conducted a missile test or a nuclear weapons explosion. But he said North Korea's existing capabilities, along with its continued development of advanced conventional systems, remain unchecked.
"The only observable change has been a reduction in the attention and bellicosity the regime layers onto its military activities. Since the end of 2017, Pyongyang has reduced its hostile rhetoric and halted media coverage of Kim Jong Un's attending capstone events such as large-scale, live-fire training or special operations raids on mock-up alliance targets," Abrams said.
"It is, however, too soon to conclude that a lower profile is indicative of lesser risk," Abrams said.
He advised the committee to maintain a force in the region to deter any possible aggression by North Korea against the United States, South Korea or regional allies. There are about 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.
Madrid, Feb 13 (AP/UNB) — A politically charged trial of a dozen Catalan separatist leaders began Tuesday in Spain's Supreme Court amid protests and the possibility of an early general election being called in the country.
The defendants are being tried on rebellion and other charges stemming from their roles in pushing ahead with a unilateral independence declaration in October 2017. The declaration was based on the results of a divisive secession referendum that ignored a constitutional ban.
The trial, arguably Spain's most important in four decades of democracy , started as the future of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's minority government hinged on a last-minute change of position by Catalan pro-independence parties to back his 2019 budget.
Sanchez could be forced to call an early election if the Catalan separatists, whose support brought the Socialists to power last year, don't change their current position of voting against his spending plan Wednesday.
The separatists want Sanchez to agree to talks on self-determination for their region, but the government argues that Spain's constitution doesn't allow it.
Opening the parliamentary debate on Tuesday, Spanish Budget Minister Maria Jesus Montero told Catalan lawmakers that the government would "not give in to any blackmail by anybody."
"Under no circumstance will we agree to include the right to self-determination in Catalonia in any talking points," she said.
Meanwhile, Sanchez appeared to put more pressure on his opponents by tweeting that "the right-wing and the separatists will vote against a budget that helps social causes."
"They both want the same thing: a Catalonia that is divided and a Spain that is divided," he wrote.
In response, Catalan lawmakers said that despite the imminent vote Wednesday, there was still time for the government to "rectify."
Tensions between regional and central authorities peaked with the 2017 breakaway attempt but the conflict has been festering ever since. The 7.5 million residents of Catalonia remain divided by the secession question.
In Barcelona, thousands marched to a central square on Tuesday, demanding independence and criticizing Spain's judiciary. Some carried signs with the slogan, "Self-determination is not a crime." Earlier, pro-independence activists briefly blocked highways and the entrance to the state prosecutor's office before they were cleared by the regional police without incident.
In Madrid, right-wing protesters carrying national flags shouted as lawyers and three defendants who were free on bail entered the 18th-century convent that houses Spain's Supreme Court.
Former Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras, the regional parliament's former Speaker Carme Forcadell and the other 10 defendants weren't expected to testify Tuesday. They sat on four benches in the middle of the courtroom.
The defendants sat facing a seven-judge panel headed by Supreme Court magistrate Manuel Marchena, who presided. They held papers, smiled to each other at times and waved at relatives in the courtroom.
Junqueras' lawyer, Andreu Van den Eynde, was the first to speak, arguing that the cause goes "against political dissidence."
"We are before an exceptional trial," he told the judges, adding that "self-determination is the formula to avoid conflicts in the world."
Catalan President Quim Torra, a fervent separatist who has had to apologize for anti-Spanish comments, followed the proceedings from the back of the courtroom, where 100 seats were reserved for defendants' relatives, journalists and members of the public who lined up for hours to get one of the limited spots.
Torra later called the trial a "farce" and said any guilty verdicts would be appealed to European courts.
"No court can put Catalan democracy on trial," Torra said. "This case will end up in European and international courts, and we will win it."
Among those not on trial is Carles Puigdemont, Torra's predecessor who fled Spain. He called for the 12 separatists to be absolved for their alleged crimes and called the trial "a stress test for the Spanish democracy."
Addressing reporters at a news conference in Berlin, the former Catalan leader added: "I trust, however, that the Spanish state will take advantage of this chance to issue the correct sentence, which is absolution."
Puigdemont successfully avoided extradition to Spain when a German court refused to send him back on charges of rebellion last year. Since then, he has campaigned in Europe for the Catalans to be able to settle their links to Spain in a vote.
Those who stayed behind and showed up in court are the ones standing trial. Junqueras, Puigdemont's No. 2 at the time, faces up to 25 in prison if found guilty of rebellion, while others charged with sedition or misuse of public funds could get shorter sentences if convicted.
The proceedings were broadcast live on television in a display of transparency that aims to fight the separatists' attack on the court's credibility. Authorities in Spain have dismissed the notion that the trial is political and say it follows the European Union's highest standards.
Proceedings were likely to last for at least three months. The verdicts, and any sentences, will be delivered months later.
San Francisco, Feb 13 (AP/UNB) — Penguins made a love connection at a San Francisco aquarium.
In what has become an annual Valentine's Day tradition, biologists handed out red felt hearts Tuesday to African penguins at the California Academy of Sciences.
The birds grabbed the hearts in their beaks and waddled around their rocky enclosure toward their nests.
Spokeswoman Kelly Mendez says it's often the male penguin who retrieves the heart and carries it back to his mate. The penguins use the felt for material in their nests, which helps reinforce the couples' bonds.
The activity is part of the academy's captive breeding program to help increase the African penguin population, which is endangered in the wild.