Dreaded Gangster El Chapo Gets Unprecedented Security Detail as Court Hearings Begin
El Chapo in U.S. custody, 19 January 2017 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, the Mexican drug lord known as ‘El Chapo’ and former leader of the dreaded Sinaloa Cartel is standing trial in a federal district court in New York.

El Chapo meaning 'Shorty' had once boasted to Hollywood actor Sean Penn that he supplied more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world. He elaborated that he had at his disposal a 'fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats' to move hundreds of tons of Colombian cocaine into Mexico before shipping it to U.S. His empire was worth an estimated US $14 billion when Guzman was at the helm with a personal net worth US $1 billion.

Guzmán, had chalked up to his credit as being one of the world’s most wanted fugitives, who had also twice escaped jail. His second escape from Mexico’s Altiplano Federal Prison is the stuff of legends. He had made his escape by crawling through a hole in the shower area of his cell block which led to a lighted and ventilated tunnel nearly two kilometers long that stretched from the prison to a half-built house. He was however rec-captured in 2016 from his home state of Sinaloa in northwest Mexico after a fierce gun battle with Mexican authorities.

The U.S. got him extradited soon after his arrest and he now stands trial on up to 17 charges including the operation of a continuing criminal enterprise, conspiring to murder rivals, firearms violations and money laundering.

He is also accused of killing or being a part of at least 30 murders of competing drug cartel members and others as he presided over one of Mexico's most influential drug cartel.

Owing to El Chapo’s profile, his trial which could last up to four months has begun under unprecedented security – for the drug lord, for the judge and for the jurors.

The US authorities have resorted to shutting down Brooklyn Bridge every time a police motorcade – including an ambulance and a SWAT team moves Guzman to and from the Manhattan Federal Prison to the court. Guzman is under solitary-confinement at the prison facility.

The court premises are guarded by heavily armed federal marshals and officers with bomb-sniffing dogs. There are multiple security levels to cross before one can enter the court room where the hearings are being held. The jurors who will hear the evidence presented against Guzman by US prosecutors will remain anonymous and be escorted to and from the court premises by armed U.S. marshals.

Last week U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan, who is presiding over the case, denied a motion by Guzman asking to hug his wife before the trial, owing to security concerns.

Those who will be called to stand witness against Guzman are also under extremely high security protection. According to court filings, witnesses will include former Sinaloa Cartel members and drug trade associates who are now cooperating with the U.S. prosecutors. These witnesses have not been publicly named, and some may even testify under aliases.

Guzman faces multiple life sentences for his crimes and he is being represented by a team of lawyers who have past records of defending other former drug bosses. These include Eduardo Balarezo and William Purpura, who previously defended Mexican drug lord Alfredo Beltran Leyva, and Jeffrey Lichtman, who successfully argued for the acquittal of mafia boss John Gotti’s son.