Mexican drug lord 'El Chapo' pleads not guilty in U.S. court

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman appeared in a U.S. court on Friday after his surprise extradition from Mexico and pleaded not guilty to charges that he ran the world’s largest drug-trafficking organization during a decades-long criminal career.

Guzman, 59, once one of the world’s most wanted drug lords, was accompanied by two court-appointed lawyers during the appearance in federal court in Brooklyn.

Best known by the nickname El Chapo, or “Shorty” in Spanish, the diminutive Guzman was extradited on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration, raising speculation about the timing.

Some officials said it was an olive branch to the incoming U.S. president, who had said he would kick Guzman’s “ass” after taking office. But some Mexican officials pointed out that Guzman’s extradition came hours before Barack Obama’s term ended in a nod to the outgoing president.

Either way current and former law enforcement officials on both sides of the border said the move would likely boost security cooperation and smooth the path for improved relations between the neighbors.

The Mexican attorney general’s office rejected claims the move was related to Trump’s swearing-in, noting that Guzman faces 10 pending cases in Mexico following his U.S. sentence.

Guzman, who was once known to carry a gold-plated AK-47 rifle, wore a blue jail uniform. Standing just 5 foot 6 inches (167.6 cm), El Chapo was clean-shaven, without his signature mustache, and his hair was close-cropped.

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He did not appear to be wearing handcuffs and had no visible expression on his face as he listened to questions from a judge.

After U.S. Magistrate Judge James Orenstein asked Guzman if he understood the accusations against him, he responded through a Spanish interpreter, “Well, I didn’t know until now.” Later, when asked again, Guzman said he understood.

An additional hearing was scheduled for Feb. 3.

Guzman’s lawyers promised a zealous defense to ensure he receives a fair trial, and they said they would examine whether Guzman was extradited appropriately.

“I haven’t seen any evidence that indicates to me that Mr. Guzman’s done anything wrong. Most of you probably haven’t seen any evidence like that either,” federal public defender Michael Schneider told reporters outside the courthouse.

The indictment in Brooklyn against Guzman, with 17 criminal counts, carries a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison, Robert Capers, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said at a news conference earlier in the day.

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U.S. prosecutors have more than 40 witnesses ready to testify against Guzman, Capers told reporters, adding that the eventual trial will likely last “many” weeks.

“Who is Chapo Guzman? In short, he’s a man known for no other life but a life of crime, violence, death and destruction, and now he’ll have to answer to that,” Capers said.

As leader of the notorious Sinaloa cartel, Guzman oversaw perhaps the world’s largest transnational cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine smuggling operation, playing a key role in Mexico’s decade-long drug war that has killed over 100,000 people.

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El Chapo was captured a year ago after he had fled a high-security penitentiary in central Mexico through a mile-long tunnel, his second dramatic prison escape.

After court on Friday, he was being sent to a federal jail in New York City that holds prisoners who have pending cases. U.S. authorities, citing security concerns, declined to say where he would be held for the months before trial, but they vowed to prevent any further escapes.

“I assure you, no tunnel will be built leading to his bathroom,” Special Agent In Charge Angel Melendez of U.S. Homeland Security Investigations said at the news conference.

Guzman arrived in a small jet at Long Island’s MacArthur Airport after nightfall on Thursday from a prison in Juarez in the northern state of Chihuahua, where his cartel rules.

A few hours earlier, Guzman was bundled out of the Mexican cell block with his hands cuffed above his bowed head, Mexican television footage showed.

U.S. prosecutors gave assurances to Mexican officials that they would not seek the death penalty in order to secure his extradition, Capers said. Mexico opposes capital punishment.

Writing by Alexandra Alper and David Ingram; Additional reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Tom Brown and James Dalgleish