Skip to main content

Notebook Law

Traffic and a trafficker

In this drawing, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, center, appears in a New York courtroom. (Elizabeth Williams/AP)


Traffic and a trafficker

New York City’s two federal courts are working through a smorgasbord of blockbuster cases, including that of notorious cartel leader El Chapo

Outside the courtroom for the trial of drug cartel king Joaquín Guzmán, better known as El Chapo, Julio and Carmen Gaytan stood in the security line. The Gaytans flew from California just to see a few days of the trial—to glimpse El Chapo, who was once a billionaire and whose Sinaloa Cartel is responsible for the deaths of thousands.

“We know Chapito,” Carmen Gaytan said of Guzmán's son. “Well, we don’t know him.”  

The Gaytans are originally from Culiacán, the Mexican city that is the heart of the Sinaloa Cartel. Mexican reporters covering the trial explained to me that Guzmán is beloved there, as mafia bosses were loved in neighborhoods where they served as protection. The Gaytans described how they always heard about Guzmán, but had never seen him. 

“To see him …” Carmen raised her eyebrows. “He’s a legend.” 

Journalists covering the trial grumbled about all the tourists like the Gaytans invading the few precious seats in the courtroom, which are all first-come, first-served. Security guards grumbled about a journalist, obviously unfamiliar with court etiquette, setting up a workspace in a judge’s chair in an empty courtroom.

New York City is hosting an extraordinary number of blockbuster federal cases at the moment. The two big federal courts here have ongoing cases concerning Harvey Weinstein; the alleged mail bomber Cesar Sayoc; the alleged terrorist Sayfullo Saipov who drove down a Manhattan bike path killing eight; and the Russian lawyer Natalya Veselnitskaya accused of aiding a cover-up of Russian government corruption (and who met with the Trump campaign at one point). 

New York federal prosecutors in the last few months also secured convictions against former Trump attorney Michael Cohen and a top Chinese energy official accused of bribing African officials. They are currently seeking extradition of a top Huawei executive whom Canadians arrested at the request of the United States, which led to a series of escalating diplomatic confrontations between Canada and China—including China’s sentencing of a Canadian to death in seeming retribution. 

The most sensational case by far centers on Guzmán, who faces charges that include murder conspiracies and drug trafficking. The heavy security for the trial of the twice-escaped drug lord requires the city to shut down the Brooklyn Bridge once a week for an armored convoy to take Guzmán from his solitary cell in lower Manhattan to the Eastern District of New York court in Brooklyn. 

Why Brooklyn? Guzmán faced federal charges in at least seven other U.S. cities, but the Justice Department chose the Eastern District likely because of the Brooklyn prosecutor’s long experience and record of success against cartels and terrorists, and because jails here have experience keeping track of high-value detainees. 

Every day of the trial has been filled with tales of stunning U.S. operations to corner Guzmán and extreme corruption that kept him safe for so long—too many stories for even daily newspapers to retell. Consider one day of testimony alone from the young man who was once in line for the Sinaloa throne, Vicente Zambada, who flipped to testify against his godfather Guzmán. 


Zambada in Mexico City in 2009. (LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images)

A star witness who could switch between English and Spanish, Zambada knew every detail of the cartel operation. He named sicarios (hit men) and described how specific murders and tortures took place. He told stories about a purchase of $750,000 of wiretapping equipment from the Mexican military, about picking up tankers of ephedrine in Belize, and about finding a train route across the United States for shipping cocaine.

Throughout his testimony he referred to Guzmán affectionately as “mi compadre Chapo,” or “my godfather Chapo,” to the annoyance of the defense lawyers. It was three seasons of a television show in one day. The trial will likely conclude in February.