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Notorious Drug Lord 'El Chapo' Heads To Trial In New York

Jury selection began Monday in the federal trial of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, shown here in 2014.
Eduardo Verdugo
Jury selection began Monday in the federal trial of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, shown here in 2014.

Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, the man accused of having run the world's largest drug trafficking organization, is about to see his day in a U.S. court. Jury selection began Monday in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The notorious drug lord, already convicted of crimes in Mexico, stands accused in the U.S. of leading a criminal enterprise, distributing cocaine and laundering the proceeds, among other alleged crimes. The 17-count indictment, which spans decades, alleges that Guzmán's cartel shipped tons of drugs from South America to the United States, and then illegally moved billions of dollars in profits to Mexico.

Leaders of Guzmán's Sinaloa Cartel "employed 'sicarios,' or hitmen, who carried out hundreds of acts of violence, including murders, assaults, kidnapping, assassinations and acts of torture," according to the indictment. Guzmán pleaded not guilty in 2017, after he was extradited from Mexico.

The identities of the jurors selected will be anonymous, and they will also be partially sequestered. The judge made that decision earlier this year, as NPR's Vanessa Romo reported, "to protect the integrity of the trial and to mitigate any fear of harassment or intimidation in the jurors' minds."

Guzmán's lawyer Jeffrey Lichtman said his client is ready for the trial to begin, according to NPR's Carrie Kahn. "The 9/11 co-conspirators were kept in better conditions than Mr. Guzmán, so he is happy to get out of the 23-hour lock-up with very little human contact," Lichtman said.

Before his extradition, Guzmán escaped from prison in Mexico – twice.

"In 2015 he got out via a long tunnel with a motorcycle track beneath what was supposed to be the country's most secure prison," Kahn reported. "During his freedom then, he secretly met with actor Sean Penn, who wrote about the encounter for Rolling Stone magazine."

"I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world," Guzmán allegedly said during that interview. "I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats."

The identities of those testifying against Guzmán are redacted in court documents, as The Associated Press reports. The wire service adds that "according to court papers, some are being held in special jail units for their protection, while others are in witness protection programs."

U.S. prosecutors are asking for a life sentence for Guzmán and a forfeiture amounting to at least $14 billion. According to The New York Times, they intend to present evidence that Guzmán was involved in at least 33 murders.

The judge, Brian M. Cogan, has reportedly expressed frustration at the sheer amount of testimony such a large number of killings would involve.

"This is a drug conspiracy case that involves murders," Cogan said at a recent hearing, according to the Times. "I'm not going to let you try a murder conspiracy case that happens to involve drugs. ... Take your best shot and cut the rest."

The courthouse itself is under tight security, and physically transporting Guzmán to Brooklyn from a federal jail in Manhattan is proving to be complicated, as the AP reported.

"For pre-trial hearings, authorities opted to transport him to and from jail by shutting down the Brooklyn Bridge to make way for a police motorcade that included a SWAT team and an ambulance, all tracked by helicopters," the wire service said.

The judge has said there would be "adjustments" during the trial, according to the AP, with some speculation that Guzmán would be temporarily held at a different location.

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Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.