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The extraordinary trial of notorious drug lord El Chapo is underway

The first week saw tight security and some wild moments. Here’s what to know.

Joaquin ‘El Chapo’, Guzman Loera to appear in Brooklyn federal court on allegations of leading a continuing criminal enterprise, other drug-related charges
Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera faces trial in Brooklyn this week.
Charles Reed/US Immigration and Customs Enforcement via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

In grainy, black-and-white security footage, a man paces back and forth in a prison cell. Then, breaking his pattern, he ducks behind a barrier in the corner of the video’s frame — and disappears.

The almost banal video doesn’t quite match up with the true audacity of his escape.

Joaquín Guzmán Loera — better known as the drug kingpin “El Chapo” — broke out of a maximum-security prison in Mexico in 2015 by slipping through a trap door in his cell shower and fleeing through a mile-long tunnel. The notorious drug cartel leader also escaped from prison in 2001, reportedly by hiding in a laundry cart (though there’s reason to doubt that tale).

This formidable history is part of the reason Guzman’s trial, which began Tuesday in Brooklyn, New York, will feature exceptional security measures. These precautions apply to the defendant, who’s reportedly in a custom-built lockup in the Brooklyn courthouse, and to the jury, who will remain anonymous. Jury members will be escorted to and from court by US Marshals.

Guzmán’s high-profile trial is the culmination of a years-long effort by US and Mexican law enforcement to bring the leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel, one of the biggest and most fearsome in Mexico, to justice.

After Guzmán escaped from Mexican custody in 2015, Mexican law enforcement, with help from the US, recaptured him in January 2016. A year later, and after rounds of discussions, the kingpin was extradited to the United States, where he faced federal charges in multiple jurisdictions. Then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch decided that Guzmán would be tried in Brooklyn, in her old bureau in the Eastern District of New York.

The trial is finally getting underway, and since it’s an enormous case, it’s expected to last months. The high-profile defendant and the intense security measures surrounding the trial have turned it into something of a spectacle.

But at its core, some believe, this is a victory for the rule of law.

“No matter how powerful, or no matter how wealthy, or no matter your reach, American law enforcement is going to investigate and prosecute [you],” Andrew Porter, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago who worked on an indictment against Guzman for several years, told me. “That was the case decades ago. I expect that will be the case decades from now.”

El Chapo’s high-profile trial has begun

Guzmán faces a 17-count indictment that includes charges of money laundering, drug trafficking, and conspiracy to commit murder. His alleged crimes took place over decades, from the 1990s to the 2000s. (Guzmán has pleaded not guilty.)

But in some ways, the legend of El Chapo, as Guzmán is often known, dwarfs the charges against him. He’s become something of a folk hero, built up by his legendary escapes. In 2013, the Chicago Crime Commission named him public enemy No. 1 — a distinction last bestowed on Al Capone, the notorious gangster, in 1930.

As Dara Lind and Amanda Taub wrote for Vox in 2016, “Guzmán is by far the most famous criminal in Mexico, and he has long been a symbol of the power that criminal organizations had achieved there.”

Federal prosecutors are also trying to play up “the myth” of a notorious and ruthless drug trafficker to bolster their case against Guzmán. Prosecutors alleged he would have informants and other enemies tortured and killed, and that he often wielded a diamond-encrusted or gold-plated AK-47. They claimed that he shipped so much cocaine to the US that every American could have their own “line” of coke. And one of the first witnesses prosecutors called gave jurors a tour of Guzmán’s elaborate tunnel network that allowed him to deliver drugs across the US border.

“Money. Drugs. Murder. A vast global drug trafficking,” Adam Fels, a federal prosecutor, said in his opening statement. “That is what this case is about, and that is what the evidence in this trial will prove.”

Guzmán’s defense team have tried to claim that he is the victim of a vast conspiracy.

They allege that another Sinaloa cartel boss, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García, was the real leader, but he escaped punishment by paying off high-level officials in the Mexican government (including current President Enrique Peña Nieto), leaving Guzmán to be the fall guy. Mexico’s president called the charges “absurd,” and the prosecution has tried, unsuccessfully, to get the defense’s entire opening statement thrown out.

Guzmán could face life in prison if he’s convicted. The trial could last as long as four months.

The El Chapo trial’s extraordinary security measures

What makes Guzmán’s trial even more unique — and even more of a spectacle — is the intensive security measures surrounding it.

Guzmán, of course, escaped from maximum-security prisons in Mexico on two occasions, so it’s no surprise that he’s under extraordinary protection. But beyond the worry that Guzmán will break out, the tough measures are intended to limit Guzmán’s influence, such as his potential ability to communicate with associates or intimidate witnesses.

Up until his trial, Guzmán spent months on lockdown in the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a notoriously bleak maximum-security prison in lower Manhattan that’s housed its fair share of high-profile inmates. He has been held in solitary confinement, reportedly with nothing but frosted glass in his cell to let light in. (Guzmán, in legal motions, has said his mental health suffered as a result of his confinement.)

Any time law enforcement had to move Guzmán for a court appearance in Brooklyn, authorities would shut down the Brooklyn Bridge for his police escort.

This threatened to make Guzmán’s trial a huge logistical headache, so the plan was to find an alternate way to transport or house Guzmán during the actual trial. The actual solution remains secret, though reports suggested that Guzmán would be housed in a special cell in the federal courthouse in Brooklyn. One courthouse official told New York magazine that the cell was “Hannibal Lecter ready.” (Federal officials declined to comment to Vox.)

These aren’t just anti-escape measures. Authorities are preventing Guzmán from having any outside contact out of fear that he might try to get a message to his cartel associates, who may try to exact revenge on witnesses cooperating with the government against Guzmán. The judge even went so far as to bar the kingpin from hugging his wife ahead of the trial.

Guzmán isn’t the only one surrounded by security. The 12 jurors in the case are escorted to and from the courthouse each day by US Marshals, and each person will remain anonymous. At least one juror dropped out on day one of trial, anxious and fearful that her life would be in danger.

Why the El Chapo case is important

The first week of Guzmán’s trial featured a lot of drama, as expected: Prosecutors and witnesses wove an elaborate tale of drug smuggling, underground tunnels, and assassination attempts. The defense’s narrative contained its own elaborate and intriguing plot of cover-ups and conspiracy, allegedly carried out by the highest levels of the Mexican government.

Beyond the spectacle, though, this trial is actually a big deal to both the United States and Mexico. Guzmán’s escape in 2015 was a huge embarrassment for the Mexican government. When Guzmán was recaptured in 2016, the US pressured Mexico to extradite him, since they had failed to keep him in custody before.

But the US also had to make some trade-offs, including backing off from the possibility of the death penalty. As Lind previously wrote:

The US ... has demonstrated a commitment to the certainty of punishment over its severity. US prosecutors often get seduced by the temptation of high-profile victories and “making an example”–level harsh sentences, sometimes in a way that blows up in their faces ... it’s less effective to deter criminals with harsh punishments, though, than it is to demonstrate that they will definitely be caught and punished.

Prosecutors in Brooklyn brought the first US federal indictments against Guzmán in 2009, almost a decade ago. Law enforcement has been building the case against him for years, putting time, resources, and manpower into a case that wasn’t always assured to go to trial, especially in the United States.

Guzmán’s trial serves as a reminder of the power of the rule of law. It seems likely that after two escapes and, allegedly, decades of a brutal, violent grip on the drug trade, El Chapo will finally be held to account.

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