Lawyers have battled for close to a year over when, where and how to try drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. But with jury selection set to start in New York’s Eastern District Court on Monday, there’s one point on which everyone seems to agree: There has never been a trial like this one before.
“It’s like the U.S. trying Pablo Escobar,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and an expert on the international drug trade and organized crime. “The purpose is to show the might of the United States justice system.”
The defendant alone makes this case historic. Guzman was extradited to the United States last year on charges he spent decades commanding the Sinaloa cartel’s drug wars, consolidating the market abroad while expanding his empire at home. Chart-topping narcocorridos celebrate his earlier escapes from prison, his lavish local patronage and his defiance of a state widely seen as corrupt. Norteño music superstar Gerardo Ortiz dubbed him “the prime minister.”
Guzman’s trial promises to be equally superlative. The federal case against him is so massive, jurors might not deliver a verdict until Valentine’s Day.
“There’s no comparison — this is bigger than anything I’ve experienced personally, or ever even heard of,” said Jeffrey Lichtman, the newest of Guzman’s defense attorneys. “The amount of material is beyond overwhelming.”
The indictment alone spans almost three decades. It paints Guzman by turns as a gifted executive and a ruthless killer who built the Sinaloa cartel into “the largest drug trafficking organization in the world” using novel trade routes and traditional modes of corruption to conduct billions of dollars in cash transactions and almost incomprehensible volumes of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and synthetic opioids across U.S. borders and around the world.
“Needless to say, the government has been playing Javert to Mr. Guzman’s Jean Valjean for a long time,” Guzman’s defense team wrote in a motion in July, casting the billionaire as Victor Hugo’s persecuted hero in “Les Miserables.” But the hundreds of thousands of pages of documents prosecutors used to bolster their case, by comparison, dwarf Hugo’s two-volume epic.
The months-long trial is also expected to include dozens of witnesses, many of them convicted criminals who will be brought from prisons across the United States. U.S. prosecutors have gone to great lengths to protect their identities, feuding with Guzman’s lawyers for months about what they would reveal and when.
“The defendant blithely dismisses the government’s well-documented security concerns for its cooperating witnesses stating that many of them are incarcerated,” U.S. attorneys wrote to Judge Brian Cogan just days before jury selection was set to begin. “Regardless of where the cooperating witnesses and/or their families are located, the capability of the defendant and his co-conspirators to harm witnesses and their families extends well beyond the reach of Mexico and other Latin American countries.”
Security measures for Guzman, who twice escaped from prison before he was extradited in January 2017, are even more rigorous. Just getting the defendant to court every day requires closing the Brooklyn Bridge at the height of rush hour so a motorcade of U.S. marshals can transport him from Manhattan’s Metropolitan Correctional Center to the Eastern District courthouse in Brooklyn.
Guzman has complained repeatedly about the “special administrative measures” he has been held under in New York. He harangued his lawyer for permission to speak to the judge, and in a February letter to the court, described headaches, vomiting, sinus pain and dental trouble he said resulted from inhospitable conditions of his confinement.
“I have not seen the sun or breathed fresh air for 13 months in your country,” he wrote in his letter to Cogan. “It is a torture 24 hours a day.”
That “torture” is unlikely to end, experts say. Even if he beats his case in New York, Guzman still faces charges in courts across the country, including the Western District of Texas, the Southern District of California, the Northern District of Illinois, the Southern District of New York and the District of New Hampshire.
Still, Lichtman said his client is in high spirits as he heads into the trial.
“He’s hopeful,” the attorney said. “He doesn’t have any human contact for the most part, but he’s got a great sense of humor. Every time I see him, we’re laughing.”
The situation in Mexico is less optimistic. While experts say it’s unlikely Guzman will be acquitted, there’s a growing consensus that convicting him may matter less than many had hoped.
A Congressional Research Service report from earlier this year noted that “Sinaloa may operate with a more horizontal leadership structure than previously thought,” meaning that even high-level arrests haven’t unraveled it. Instead, Mexico’s murder rate has soared, as the rival Jalisco New Generation gang tries to claw power from the weakened Sinaloa cartel.
“That’s why Mexico last year has been more violent than any year since numbers have been kept,” said Felbab-Brown, the organized crime expert. “Chapo’s genius has lain in the ability to calibrate violence with political capital. In the short term, even just his arrest has greatly exacerbated violence in Mexico.”
Growing political tension between Mexico and the U.S. could stymie joint anti-drug enforcement efforts and further inflame violent turf wars among cartels, the report warned.
Regardless, Felbab-Brown said the trial is a critical step.
“It’s very important that Chapo is successfully prosecuted and punished,” the researcher said. “The U.S. is very keen to make a demonstration case out of him.”
Sharp is a special correspondent.