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In court with El Chapo

A government shutdown hasn’t stopped the cartel leader’s dramatic trial

In court with El Chapo

A federal law enforcement caravan carries Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán to a Manhattan jail following a pretrial hearing at a Brooklyn courthouse for his drug conspiracy case. (Tom Hays/AP)

A New York moment:

I took the train last week to Brooklyn, where the federal court is holding the trial for El Chapo, aka Joaquín Guzmán, the notorious Sinaloa cartel chief worth billions. Thanks to court fees, the trial is continuing for now despite the federal government shutdown. But the lawyers prosecuting Guzmán and the U.S. marshals providing heavy security for the case are working without pay.

Security for the trial is so tight because of Guzmán’s history of two escapes from maximum-security prisons in Mexico. Once a week, the city shuts down the Brooklyn Bridge to bring Guzmán in an armored car from a solitary holding cell in Manhattan, which is considered the most secure jail in the country, to Brooklyn, where he remains in an undisclosed location between hearings during the week.

Even with the tight security, the trial has about 45 seats open to the public on a first-come, first-serve basis, with tourists arriving just after sun-up to get a spot. As I walked into the courthouse, extra marshals stood off to the side, eyeing people in the security line. Once through security, I went up to the 8th-floor courtroom—stripped of all electronics—to go through security once again. About a dozen guards and marshals stood outside the courtroom with dogs and no-nonsense attitudes.

U.S. marshals bring jurors to and from the court every day. The jurors sit behind a black scrim in the courtroom where they can see lawyers, the judge, and the rest, but the public can’t see them. The prosecution has kept the list of witnesses mostly secret, too, until they appear.

One of the biggest star witnesses testified the day I covered: Vicente Zambada, who was next in line to lead the Sinaloa cartel and is Guzmán’s godson. He discussed every detail of their operations, from massive tanker shipments of drugs to wiretapping equipment purchases from the Mexican military to the dirty deeds of the cartel’s “sicarios” with nicknames like Fantasma. As the day zoomed along, the judge (unlike any of the gobsmacked onlookers) was ready to move on from Zambada’s testimony for the sake of time. Prosecutor Amanda Liskamm promised him: “We’re almost done, I just want to wrap up the murder section.”

Worth your time:

Peter Wehner’s article laying out the idea of Christian grace in The New York Times.

This week I learned:

Six engineers from Columbia and Cornell universities, working pro bono over Christmas, solved a problem that has eluded the nation’s largest transit agency (New York’s subway system) for years. To complete a yearlong repair, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority was planning to shut down a subway line in April that serves 225,000 commuters daily. Thanks to these engineer Christmas elves, those New Yorkers will have a way to work, and panicking businesses around the train line can take a deep breath. 

Kudos to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for seeking out the academics for an alternative solution. But I cringe to think how much the MTA spent on the consulting agency over the last few years to come up with the original plan, which now appears to be scrapped.

A court case you might not know about:

The criminal fraud case involving officials from Olivet University, an accredited Christian college, begins in Manhattan soon. I plan to cover.

Culture I am consuming:

Green Book. While it does not really deserve its “Best Picture–Musical or Comedy” win at the Golden Globes, it is a funny and warm film with great turns by Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen. Some have accused the film of showing too “rosy” a picture of race, but I’m with Ali on this one—we need all kinds of stories in this area, both the cheerful and serious.

Email me with tips, story ideas, and feedback at ebelz@wng.org

Comments

  • JDC
    Posted: Wed, 01/09/2019 02:00 pm

    Why doesn't the US use El Chapo's billions to construct the wall?