The trial of Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman on drug trafficking and conspiracy charges, which is expected to last four months, began Monday with the selection of jurors in Brooklyn federal court.
U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan, prosecutors and defense lawyers on Monday morning questioned 20 potential jurors, and have so far ruled out five. The jurors were called into the courtroom wearing stickers identifying them by number, their names withheld to protect their safety.
Guzman, sitting in the courtroom wearing a navy blue suit and an open-collared white shirt, could see them, though he seemed to pay them little attention.
Guzman, 61, formerly led the Sinaloa Cartel, named after its base in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, which became one of the most powerful drug trafficking organizations in the world.
Guzman’s nickname, a reference to his five foot, six inch height, is often translated in English as “Shorty.”
He was extradited to the United States from Mexico on Jan. 19, 2017, after escaping twice from Mexican prisons before being captured again.
U.S. prosecutors say that as the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, Guzman directed the movement of multi-ton shipments of drugs including heroin, cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine across borders and into the United States. If convicted, he faces life in prison.
The potential jurors had previously filled out written questionnaires, and much of the questioning on Monday concerned their responses. One of those dismissed was a woman who had written on her questionnaire, “Drugs are bad for you.”
“I feel very badly about drugs,” she said, when Cogan asked about the answer.
Another man was sent away after admitting that he had read about the case on Wikipedia after receiving his jury summons. Others were excused because of personal ties to law enforcement, scheduling conflicts and concerns about lost income.
Those still in the running include a self-described professional impersonator of the late pop star Michael Jackson. Prosecutors have asked that he be excused because his job could make him easy to identify.
Jury selection is expected to continue in the afternoon.
Many of the questions were routine in any criminal case, including whether jurors had strong feelings about law enforcement or witnesses testifying under cooperation agreements with prosecutors.
One recurring theme was the legalization of marijuana: several jurors said they supported it, but when questioned said they could be impartial when weighing marijuana charges.
‘EL CHAPO’ CAUGHT
A Mexican official told Reuters at the time that the move was a show of goodwill to incoming U.S. President Donald Trump, who was inaugurated the next day, though Alberto Elias Beltran, Mexico’s assistant attorney general for international affairs, denied any connection.
U.S. prosecutors say that as the head of the Sinaloa Cartel since 2003, Guzman directed the movement of multi-ton shipments of drugs including heroin, cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine across borders and into the United States. If convicted, Guzman faces life in prison.
According to court filings, prosecution witnesses will include former Sinaloa Cartel members and others involved in the drug trade who are now cooperating with the U.S. government. Prosecutors have so far avoided naming the witnesses, saying that doing so would put them in danger. Some are expected to testify under aliases.
Although the charges in the case all relate to drug trafficking, prosecutors are also expected to introduce evidence that Guzman was involved in multiple murder plots in the course of his career, including in wars with rival cartels.
Guzman’s lawyers have so far given few hints about their planned defense. Eduardo Balarezo, one of the lawyers, said in a court filing that he will seek to prove that Guzman was merely a “lieutenant,” acting at the direction of others.
Mexican authorities captured Guzman and an associate in January 2016 fleeing a raid on a house where he had been staying in northwest Mexico.
A few months earlier, Guzman gave a widely publicized interview to American actor Sean Penn for Rolling Stone magazine in which he said: “I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world.”
Heavy security for first day of Guzman trial
Ahead of the jury selection Monday morning, local, domestic and international press began arriving at the federal courthouse in Brooklyn.
Metro eyed five heavily armed federal officers walking the perimeter of the building as well as patrols with bomb-sniffing K-9s.
It has not yet been determined if Guzman is already at the federal courthouse or will be transported later.
Additional reporting by Metro Staff Writer Anna Harstedt. Metro Staff Reporter Nikki M. Mascali contributed to this report.