Police officers standing outside the Federal Courthouse in downtown Brooklyn on a rainy Tuesday described the scene as “totally normal.”
Normal, perhaps, if you consider that behind the closed doors of that courthouse, the trial of a reputed major international drug kingpin was underway.
There were two officers outside, and a few more down the street. The main road was blocked off. A Secret Service agent hid in his car on the adjacent street. A bomb dog waited inside.
Inside, Joaquin “El Chapo” (Shorty) Guzmán and his lawyers are preparing for what observers predict will be a long, tedious trial.
Guzmán, whose age is variously given as 61 and 64, who allegedly ran the world’s largest drug-trafficking operation even while behind bars in Mexico. He now faces the possibility of life imprisonment in the United States, according to USA Today.
Jury selection began this week for a trial that is expected to last two to four months.
Federal authorities have imposed high security measures to prevent Guzmán from slipping away… again.
Guzmán had previously escaped prison, once by bribing the guards and climbing in a dirty laundry basket.
- June 10, 1993: Mexico announces Guzmán’s first capture in Guatemala. But even after Guzmán was imprisoned, “He continued to manage his affairs from prison with scarcely a hitch,” writes Robert Saviano in his book “ZeroZeroZero.” “The maximum security prison Puente Grande, where he was transferred in 1995, became his new base of operations,”
- Jan. 19, 2001: With the help of bribed guards, Guzman escapes from his top-security prison. Saviano describes the escape: “One of them—Francisco Camberos Rivera, known as El Chito, or the Silent One—opened the door to El Chapo’s cell and helped him climb into a cart of dirty laundry. They headed down unguarded hallways and through wide-open electronic doors to the inner parking lot, where only one guard was on duty. El Chapo jumped out of the cart and leaped into the trunk of a Chevrolet Monte Carlo.”
- Feb. 22, 2014: El Chapo is captured in Mazatlan after hiding in tunnels for days. The success was touted as a huge win for authorities, who by then had deemed Guzmán the “most powerful drug trafficker in the world.”
- July 11, 2015: Guzmán escapes through a tunnel from Mexico’s top-security prison. You can see the path he took to escape here.
- Jan. 8, 2016: He is once again re-captured in Los Mochis, Sinaloa after a shootout with Mexican marines. Five people were killed and one marine was wounded in the fight.
Currently, Guzmán has been held in solitary confinement in a high-security federal cell in Manhattan since January 2017, when Mexico agreed to allow his extradition to the United States for trial.
The Brooklyn Bridge was closed to traffic each time federal officials transported him across the East River from his cell for pretrial hearings at the federal courthouse near the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood.
The identities of most scheduled prosecution witnesses also are being kept secret.
Charges against Guzmán include 17 criminal counts and carry a mandatory minimum life sentence. He denies the charges.
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, reports ABC News.
“No one knows what the evidence is but apparently there are hundreds of hours of secret recordings,” Douglas Century, who co-authored “Hunting El Chapo” with Andrew Hogan, the DEA agent who went undercover to capture the drug kingpin, told ABC.
“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.”
While “El Chapo” has captivated the attention of true crime writers and Hollywood celebrities with his alleged crimes, his story carries echoes of an equally ostentatious narco-boss: Pablo Escobar, the late Colombian drug lord who amassed enormous wealth as the head of a sprawling drug empire based in the city of Medellin in the 1980s and 1990s.
Known as “the King of Cocaine,” Escobar lived in remote luxury on a ranch where he installed his own private zoo. He was never brought to justice in the way Guzmán has been—mainly because he was assassinated in 1993 on a rooftop before the justice system could get to him, Alejandro Rincón, a New York Correspondent from NTN24, a Columbian news channel, told The Crime Report.
“There’s a lot of similarities between the two ” said Rincón.
“Both were searched by the authorities. But it’s also interesting to see someone (Guzmán) who did so much harm to one country (Mexico) brought to justice in a new country.”
Opening arguments in the trial are expected to begin next week.
Megan Hadley is senior staff writer for The Crime Report.