NEW YORK (Reuters) - Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman will spend the rest of his life in a U.S. prison if convicted on charges he ran the world's largest drug-trafficking organization during a decades-long criminal career, U.S. prosecutors said on Friday.
El Chapo (Spanish for "Shorty"), once one of the world's most wanted drug lords, was set to appear at 2 p.m. EST in federal court in Brooklyn to be arraigned on 17 criminal counts, a day after his surprise extradition from Mexico.
The charges carry a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison, Robert Capers, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said at a news conference.
"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.
Guzman, 59, arrived in a small jet at Long Island's MacArthur Airport after nightfall on Thursday from a prison in the city of Juarez in the northern state of Chihuahua, where his Sinaloa cartelrules.
A few hours earlier, Guzman, who stands 5 feet six inches, was bundled out of the Mexican cell block with his hands cuffed above his bowed head, Mexican television footage showed.
Guzman is charged in six separate U.S. indictments. He is accused of money laundering and drug trafficking, kidnapping and murder in Chicago, Miami, New York and other cities.
Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn have more than 40 witnesses ready to testify against Guzman, Capers told reporters, adding that the trial will likely last "many" weeks.
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.
One of Guzman's lawyers was surprised at the extradition, saying that four appeals in Mexico were outstanding to stop it.
U.S. authorities did not have much notice, either, although they had long planned for Guzman's arrival, Justice Department official Kenneth Blanco said at the news conference. "We were notified yesterday that he would be on his way," he said.
Leading the 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.
"Guzman and the Sinaloa cartel had a veritable army, ready to war with competitors and anyone Guzman deemed to be a traitor," U.S. prosecutors said. He was known to carry a gold-plated AK-47 rifle.
The indictment of Guzman seeks to recover more than $14 billion in drug proceeds and illicit profits.
"We can't say how much we have eyes on or how much we'll recover but what we do know is that the government will be vigilant in trying to recover as much of those assets as we can," Capers said.
The extradition came on the eve of Donald Trump's inauguration, a coincidence that some officials said was an olive branch to the incoming president who declared he would kick Guzman's "ass" on taking office.
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.
He 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.
U.S. authorities, citing security concerns, declined to say where he would be held while awaiting 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 AngelMelendez of U.S. Homeland Security Investigations said at the news conference.
Melendez said he was present when Guzman deplaned in Long Island.
"As you looked into his eyes you could see the surprise, you could see the shock, and to a certain extent you could actually see the fear as the realization started to kick in that he's about to face American justice," he said.