BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – With opening statements still a week a way, attorneys ironed out a jury Wednesday for the New York trial of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
A two-time escapee from high-security Mexican prisons, Guzman was convicted on drug charges in Mexico in the 1990s and arraigned last year in Brooklyn on a 17-count superseding indictment. Of the seven women and five men selected for the jury, 11 said they had heard of the defendant.
Four speak a range of Spanish, including one native speaker; others immigrated from Poland, Ethiopia and South Asia; and several have ties to law enforcement, including one juror who is a retired Department of Corrections officer. The jury will not have to stay in a hotel for the trial, which is expected to last between two and four months, but U.S. marshals will ferry them every day between their homes and the courthouse.
In contrast to the prison garb he wore at past hearings, Guzman donned sharp suits in navy and black for jury selection, where he sat alert and expressive at the defense table.
The jury was fielded from a pool of 74 after the court sent 1,000 questionnaires this summer to residents of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and Long Island, the four communities that make up New York’s Eastern District.
With this group, the parties acted swiftly to excuse anyone who expressed fear for their safety, including one woman who broke down in tears in the hallway, saying her mother was terrified that her daughter might serve on El Chapo’s jury.
U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan allowed only a group of five reporters to attend this week’s proceedings, which were otherwise closed to the public.
None of the selected jurors said they were scared of Guzman, but Cogan noted that one cried after she was selected, privately telling him she was worried people would find her out.
One man found himself excused from the jury meanwhile after asking a court security officer to get him Guzman’s autograph. A woman who read aloud in the jury room from a newspaper article about the case was also struck — for failing to follow instructions not to read about the case — as was a self-described official Michael Jackson impersonator and a man who said he loves the “El Chapo” sandwich at his local deli — lox, capers and cream cheese on a bagel.
No juror was excused just on the basis of their familiarity with the Netflix series “El Chapo” or “Narcos,” the popular drama whose fourth season is set to explore Guzman’s roots in Mexico.
Lawyers for the 61-year-old asked Judge Cogan in a letter Tuesday if Guzman can greet his wife with a hug before opening arguments kick off on Nov. 13.
Ioan Grillo, a British journalist based in Mexico City who has covered Latin America for the better part of two decades, called it unusual that Guzman has chosen to fight the charges rather than flip.
“The majority of drug traffickers make a deal,” said Grillo, who is the author of “El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency” and “Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields and the New Politics of Latin America.”
But Guzman, by defying this tradition, is forcing U.S. prosecutors to lay out their cards.
“You’ve got this drug enforcement efforts over the last 30 years suddenly being shown … suddenly having a light on them,” Grillo said. “You see the drug war, and you see how disastrous it’s been, and you see how dirty it’s been.”
Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope also predicted that Guzman’s trial could offer some powerful insights into the evolution of the U.S. war on drugs, as well as the development of Mexican organized crime — something he said Guzman’s career tends to exemplify.
“Guzman’s rise and fall are, in a way — you follow his career, you’re basically following the development of Mexican organized crime, from a small, relatively regional problem to a major phenomenon with global repercussions,” said Hope, a former intelligence officer with the Mexican civilian intelligence agency, CISEN.
It will take more than a conviction in Brooklyn though to end that cycle, Hope explained, noting that organized crime in Mexico has splintered into a “much more complex ecosystem” with smaller players who use extortion, kidnapping and theft to make their living.
“Joaquin Guzman does not represent the future of Mexican organized crime,” said Hope. “He is the past. He represents a very specific organizational structure, a very specific market structure. … This guy represented the apex of a large transnational organization that could move tons and tons of drugs. That is no longer the dominant force in Mexican organized crime.”
Attempting to pin down a national mood on the trial in Mexico, Grillo said opinions will vary based on geography and class, but that mostly people are tired.
“I think people here are very weary of drug cartel violence,” Grillo said, “exhausted and sad and disheartened.”
Hope predicted as well that interest in Guzman’s trial would be higher in the U.S. than in Mexico. “When they extradited Joaquin Guzman,” he said, “in many ways it represented something like closure for Mexicans.”
Andrew Porter, who worked on a case against Guzman in Chicago during a 15-year stint at the U.S. Attorney’s Office there, said prosecutors will have corroborate witness statements say with travel logs or proof of narcotics seizures.
“The key to all these cases is to have folks who are on the inside, who are now cooperating, who can paint the picture and tell the story of how an organization ran its business,” said Porter, now a trial lawyer at Drinker Biddle.
Guzman’s defense is likely to attack the credibility of cooperating witnesses as well as the ethics of drug enforcement efforts in Latin America.
Amid reports that extraordinary measures are being taken to keep the government’s cooperating witnesses against Guzman safe, most court documents relating to these individuals have been filed under seal.
Offering some predictions on the names this list could feature, analyst Hope said three possibilities could be Sinaloa cartel senior member Vincente Zambada and twin brothers Margarito Jr. (Junior) and Pedro (Peter) Flores.
Like the Flores brothers, Zambada is already an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration but his father, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, was indicted alongside Guzman. The elder Zambada is thought to be one of the highest-ranking members of the Sinaloa cartel and is on the DEA’s list of Most Wanted fugitives.
Hope likewise predicted that surprises will be scarce in Guzman’s trial, pointing out that Guzman is believed to have spent most of his career protected by police and military officers on the ground — in other words, bit players in the international drug war.
“He didn’t need a president to protect him,” said Hope,. “He needed a military officer to not interfere in the cocaine trade,” Hope said.
One factor worth noting is that the drug-trafficking charges make up the bulk of the case against Guzman. His indictment includes just one murder-conspiracy charge, an offshoot of a count of continuing criminal enterprise.
While Hope was unequivocal in his prediction that Guzman will be convicted and spend the rest of his life in prison, and Porter said there was “overwhelming” evidence against him, Grillo seemed less confident.
“Thinking from a betting point of view, you’ve got to think that odds are going to be on conviction,” Grillo said. “However, you have to think there is a significant outside chance of ‘not guilty.’ Which would be an enormous blow to American law enforcement.”
Jeffrey Lichtman, one of Guzman’s trial lawyers, famously secured a 2005 mistrial for mob boss John Gotti Jr. of the Gambino crime family.
If Guzman were to wrangle a similar result, Grillo said, the implications could be disastrous for U.S. prosecutors and DEA agents, many of whom risk their lives for their work. It could also hurt extradition treaties between the U.S. and other nations that send accused criminals here.
But the alternative, Grillo continued, is not exactly a cure-all.
“Sending him to prison for a bunch of years doesn’t actually help Mexico a great deal either,” he said. “There’s still so many people — it’s not like you put away El Chapo and everything’s fine here. Violence is worse than ever.”
Guzman is also represented by William Purpura and A. Eduardo Balarezo.