On January 19, the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration as president, as the world set its eyes on Washington, the notorious drug lord of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel boarded a plane from Ciudad Juarez to New York in an unexpected and sudden extradition.
It was there that Joaquin Archivaldo Guzman Loera, known as “El Chapo,” who had twice escaped maximum-security prisons in his own country, would meet his most formidable match to date: a highly successful federal court system and a 12-story prison just across the Brooklyn Bridge, known to many as “Little Guantanamo.”
While Guzman faces trial in multiple states besides New York — California, Texas, Illinois, Florida and New Hampshire — criminal justice experts believe the U.S. Justice Department’s choice of the Empire State reflects its confidence in its case against a man widely considered to be the world’s most powerful trafficker.
‘Very secure’ facilities
“New York is well-accustomed to trying high-notoriety defendants,” Paul Callan, a former homicide prosecutor and CNN legal analyst, told VOA. “We have very secure courtroom facilities, we have secure jail facilities, and New York is used to handling the press and the kind of coverage that takes place in these high-profile cases.”
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Callan added, lends itself to a demographically diverse and sophisticated jury.
“A jury that is familiar with drug dealers, a jury that is familiar with ‘snitch testimony,’ as they call it, and that is when somebody is testifying for the government who may be involved in criminology himself,” said Callan. “These jurors from Brooklyn have seen this all before.”
U.S. Attorney Robert Capers charged Guzman on 17 criminal counts that carry a mandatory minimum life sentence in prison. According to Capers, four among more than 200 tons of cocaine and heroin shipments attributable to Guzman were seized in the district alone; in all, seven-and-a-half tons were seized across the United States.
Following his arraignment, Guzman was transferred to the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC), a high-security facility near lower Manhattan’s financial district that has hosted notable high-profile criminals, including al-Qaida operatives and Bernard L. Madoff, operator of the largest Ponzi scheme in U.S. history.
Former New York Times investigative journalist Selwyn Raab, who spent his career covering criminal justice, has visited MCC many times. He considers its conditions to be among the most rigorous.
“Here, he’s going to be monitored 24 hours a day,” Raab said. “He’s not going to be able to go to the bathroom or take a shower or do anything without some eyes poking at him.”
In the high-security prison’s 42-year history, few have escaped. Still, residents who work or live in near the prison in Tribeca, one of the city’s most coveted white-collar neighborhoods, have mixed feelings about having Guzman there.
“It’s the cartel. If they want to get here, they’ll get here,” said Jean Young, a city employee from the area. “Thank God the federal building has a lot of checkpoints.”
Tribeca resident Luke Valente, on the other hand, considers Guzman’s New York destination a success.
Feeling of confidence
“I have a lot of faith in the professionals that are working here and in the U.S. in general,” Valente told VOA. “I think considering what he’s done in the past, in places outside the U.S., as far as being in custody, I feel that much more safe and confident that they’ll be able to see his sentence through.”
While his case is still pending, the public is unaware of whether El Chapo remains in MCC’s “10 South” — the prison’s highest-security wing. The Department of Justice declined to confirm his whereabouts to VOA for “safety and security reasons.”
Guzman’s next court appearance is scheduled for Friday. A judge suggested he appear via video conference, but his lawyers have demanded that he be physically present.