The trial of El Chapo, which has been decades in the making, is set to begin in Brooklyn on Monday. He’s effectively charged with being El Chapo as we know him (as opposed to a humble farmer, as he’s insisted, or a mere lieutenant in the Sinaloa cartel). The 17 counts against him include murder conspiracy, drug-trafficking, and money-laundering. The world will be watching, but proceedings will happen in as much secrecy as the authorities can muster: Such secrecy, in fact, that even at this late stage, no one will say how El Chapo will get to court and back, or whether it will require closing the Brooklyn Bridge during every rush hour for months.
The accused drug lord, whose given name is Joaquin Guzmán, was brought to New York in early 2017. He’s escaped from prisons twice in the past — once by hiding in a cart of dirty laundry (or at least that’s the lore), and the other time by tunneling out of a cell — and has both a vast network of business associates and an uncanny way of charming prison guards. “In sum,” federal prosecutors wrote in a memo when he was brought over, “it is difficult to imagine another person with a greater risk of fleeing prosecution.”
It was clear that no ordinary clink would do. So Guzmán was put in the Metropolitan Correctional Center, around the corner from City Hall in Manhattan. It’s one of the most secure jails in the nation, also known as Little Gitmo. Others previously held there include the mobster John Gotti Sr. and an aide of Osama bin Laden.
One side effect is that for the last 19 months, each of his court appearances has required closing the Brooklyn Bridge to civilians so that scores of police and emergency cars can shuttle him to Brooklyn Heights and back. His attorneys have argued that the spectacle, and the traffic delays it causes, are likely to poison potential jurors against him.
In August, the judge, Brian Cogan, refused to move the trial to Manhattan — but he added cryptically that bridge-closings shouldn’t be a problem, “for reasons that I’m not going to state at this time.” He then asked the attorneys to sign nondisclosure agreements with the U.S. Marshals Service, which handles Guzmán’s transportation.
Since then, there’s been no announcement about months’ worth of bridge closures, so in all likelihood, it’s been taken care of. But no one will say a word about it.
The Department of Transportation, when asked for comment, deferred to the NYPD and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, both of which ignored New York’s queries. The Marshals Service also declined to comment.
“Anything that’s been resolved with that is all under court order,” explained Jeffrey Lichtman, one of Guzmán’s attorneys, on the phone this week. He added that he’d just been through a hassle trying to explain this to a German reporter. “The guy could not understand that I was not going to violate a court order to help his readers understand exactly what was going on.”
One possibility is that El Chapo will be brought over by helicopter, as the New York Times has also suggested. The nearest helipad is a mile from the courthouse, and the trip over the East River only takes a few minutes. On the other hand, criminal masterminds have been known to hijack helicopters in the past — and once a helicopter’s gone, it’s gone; there’s no way to set up a roadblock. (Not to mention that any guard who’s seen Scarface might be reluctant to get onboard.)
Another intriguing prospect is that he’ll be transported by boat. The water taxis that leave from South Street Seaport drop passengers off in Dumbo, blocks away from the courthouse, and they look pretty secure.
Of course, it’s most likely that he’ll be held somewhere in Brooklyn instead. This was what William Purpura, another of Guzmán’s attorneys, predicted to reporters in August. “They’ve done that before in other proceedings,” Purpura said at the time. “Whether he’ll return back to Manhattan for the weekends, we’re not sure.”
Among the other security measures, jurors will be kept anonymous and will be escorted home by the U.S. Marshals every day, and some witnesses may testify under an alias. And Guzmán has been kept in solitary confinement, where Lichtman says his mental state has been deteriorating. “He’s under a lot of stress,” the attorney said. “But every time I see him, we have at least one point in the meeting where we’re laughing hysterically. I personally like him. We have a lot in common, believe it or not.”
It’s likely to be the most complicated trial the city has seen in many years. Prosecutors have reportedly shared more than 300,000 pages of documents with the defense, including some 14,000 pages of witness statements. Guzmán’s lawyers have repeatedly asked for more time, but the judge hasn’t given in.
“I’ve never seen anything like this — it’s like six trials in one,” Lichtman said. “It’s probably 20 times bigger than Gotti” — that is, the 2005 racketeering trial of John Gotti Jr., the famous mob boss’s son, who Lichtman also defended — “and Gotti was huge. Huge.” Lichtman signed on late because of financial complications, namely the threat of the government confiscating the money Guzmán would otherwise use to pay him, and as a result he’s had only six weeks to prepare. “I’ll learn a lot about myself as a defense lawyer, 28 years into this,” he said. “Because it’s almost cross-examining in the dark.”