The trial of Mexican drug lord Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, better known as “El Chapo”, began in New York on Tuesday, The Guardian reported. Guzmán, 61, was the kingpin of the influential Sinaloa drug cartel that is believed to be responsible for almost 25% of all illegal drugs that enter the United States from Mexico.

Mexico extradited Guzmán to the United States in January 2017.

The drug lord’s lawyer Jeffrey Lichtman claimed that his client was being made a scapegoat for the real leader of the Sinaloa cartel. He accused the prosecution of using the “myth of El Chapo” to distract from a failed “war on drugs”. Lichtman claimed that Mexican officials, including current and former presidents, had received bribes to protect drug trafficker Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who is still absconding.

Former President Felipe Calderón called the allegations “absolutely false and reckless” and denied receiving any payments from either Guzmán or the Sinaloa cartel, while a spokesperson for outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto described them as “false and defamatory”.

Prosecutor Adam Fels told the jury that Guzmán had earned close to $14 billion from the drug trade and had moved hundreds of tons of Colombian cocaine into Mexico before shipping it to the US for distribution, CBS News reported. The drug lord had his own personal army and a hit squad and carried a diamond-encrusted handgun and a gold AK-47, the prosecutor added.

According to Fels, former members of Guzmán’s cartel will “testify about their own criminal conduct and the criminal conduct of Guzmán”.

Lichtman said a possible conviction would be the “biggest prize” for prosecutors and described potential prosecution witnesses as “gutter human beings”.

Guzmán has pleaded not guilty to 17 federal charges, including running a criminal organisation, conspiring to murder his rivals, money laundering and firearms violations. If convicted, he faces a life sentence. The trial is expected to last four months.

US courts first indicted Guzmán in the 1990s. His began his career in opium and cannabis farming and expanded to include what is believed to be the largest transnational cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine smuggling operation. The drug smuggler managed to escape twice from Mexican prisons during his incarceration and reportedly controlled operations from his cell.