Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman to arrive in Brooklyn as Mexican drug lord’s trial begins in US federal court
Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman arrives in New York last year following his extradition from Mexico. (Reuters)
The New York trial of Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman has kicked off in a federal court in Brooklyn with the selection of potential jurors.
- El Chapo was extradited to the US in 2017 where he is facing 17 criminal charges
- The mammoth trial starts November 13 and is expected to take four months
- Security for the drug kingpin is described as “like a Hollywood movie”
From humble beginnings selling oranges as child in Badiraguato, the 61-year-old is alleged to have amassed a fortune by running one of the biggest drug-trafficking operations in the world, the Sinaloa Cartel, named after its base in the Mexican state of Sinaloa.
The accused drug kingpin has pleaded not guilty to charges that his Sinaloa cartel smuggled tonnes of cocaine and other drugs, laundered billions of dollars and oversaw a ruthless campaign of murders and kidnappings.
Guzman, whose nickname means “Shorty” in Spanish, was extradited to the United States in January 2017 after breaking out of a high-security prison in central Mexico through a 1.5-kilometre tunnel.
If convicted, he faces life in a prison under multiple indictments in six jurisdictions around the US, including New York, San Diego, Chicago and Miami.
The mammoth trial — described by some experts as “air-tight” — is expected to run for four months.
What will security be like?
Guzman has broken out of jail in Mexico not once, but twice, so it’s no surprise that security around the trial would be razor-tight.
Douglas Century, journalist and co-author of Hunting El Chapo: The Inside Story of the American Lawman Who Captured the World’s Most Wanted Drug-Lord, described the security apparatus as akin to a scene from a Hollywood movie.
“The security precautions they’re taking for this trial are completely unprecedented,” he told the ABC.
“They’ve closed the Brooklyn bridge, which is a major artery for commuters both ways.
“It’s a very short drive [from Manhattan], but he’s on a 23-hour-a-day lockdown … to bring him over to Brooklyn is like a Hollywood movie.”
However, with a four-month-long trial planned, Mr Century acknowledged it would be untenable to keep shutting down the bridge with police motorcades.
“The judge, whose name is Brian Cogan, has said something to the effect that it would be best if we don’t disrupt traffic, so maybe he’ll be held in Brooklyn during the week,” Mr Century said.
“But this is a spectacle that no-one in my memory has ever seen.”
Security was also tight around the courthouse on Monday, with heavily armed officers seen conducting sweeps with bomb-sniffing dogs in the area.
The Brooklyn bridge has been closed to traffic in order to transport Guzman between jail and the court. (Reuters: Brendan McDermid)
Who will be on the El Chapo jury?
According to Mr Century, we may never know. The jurors are being granted anonymity and they will be partially sequestered during the trial.
“The real concern, I think, is not that Chapo is going to escape on his way to trial, but that there is some intent to get to one of the jurors,” he said.
“So they’re escorted by US federal marshals to and from the courthouse. Again, this is a set of remarkable circumstances that nobody has seen, as far as I know.”
Among those in the jury pool is a self-described professional Michael Jackson impersonator, whom prosecutors asked be excused because his work could make him easy to identify.
The juror selection process is intense — Guzman’s notoriety means potential jurors are being asked to fill out a 48-page questionnaire to determine how much they know about his reputation as a ruthless drug lord.
Guzman (right) in a court sketch during an appearance in a Brooklyn court last year. (Reuters: Christine Cornell)
While he was on the run, Guzman gave a highly publicised interview to actor Sean Penn that the Mexican Government said led to his 2016 arrest.
“To be honest it’s going to be a remarkable feat to be able to find 12 people who don’t have some connection, that they haven’t heard of Sean Penn or something that has occurred, because this has been global news now for several years,” Mr Century said.
What charges is he facing?
The indictment includes 17 criminal counts and carries a mandatory minimum life sentence if Guzman, who denies the charges, is convicted.
Prosecutors have more than 40 witnesses ready to testify against him, an astonishing number considering the potential dangers associated with testifying against a powerful drug kingpin.
“No-one knows what the evidence is but apparently there are hundreds of hours of secret recordings,” Mr Century said.
“And they’ve got turncoats who [include] these two twins, the Flores brothers from Chicago, some of Chapo’s closest lieutenants, [and] a guy named Damaso Lopez who has apparently flipped and is working for the Government.”
Has El Chapo’s influence diminished?
Speculation that Guzman’s cartel would stump up the millions of dollars required to launch a paramilitary operation designed to get to the witnesses or bust out Guzman amounted to little more than “a Hollywood fiction”, Mr Century said.
“They’re either in witness protection or they’re in administrative segregation in the prison system — they’re safe,” he said.
“I would be very surprised if any of them were injured or threatened before trial.”
And with Guzman facing a laundry list of charges and the lengthiest-possible prison term, Mr Century said that El Chapo’s Sinaloa cartel had “written him off”, passing operations onto his sons.
“I mean, Chapo’s power, even within Mexico, there’s always another top dog. There’s another younger guy, they call him El Mancho in Guadalajara,” he explained.
“So Chapo, having been here in the United States for the last year, in 23-hour-a-day lockdown, doesn’t have the powers to give orders and break out of the prison system or corrupt the prison system or get to witnesses, I believe, the way that he did in Mexico.”