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Opening Statements To Begin In 'El Chapo' Trial

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Opening statements will begin today in a pretty big trial. It is United States v. Joaquin Guzman Loera, who is better known as El Chapo. Guzman is infamous for building a multibillion dollar narcotics empire on murder and violence. The drug kingpin evaded U.S. authorities for years - even escaping from maximum security prisons twice. The federal courthouse in Brooklyn, N.Y., is bristling with security today, as you might expect. And Wall Street Journal legal reporter Nicole Hong is going to be there. She's covering the trial and joins us. Good morning.

NICOLE HONG: Good morning.

GREENE: So Nicole, what are the charges actually being brought against Guzman here?

HONG: So it's a 17-count indictment. And it spans almost 30 years of alleged criminal activity. And the bulk of the charges are sort of standard drug trafficking, drug distribution charges - just accusing him of trafficking just massive amounts of cocaine, heroin and other drugs to the U.S. But there's also a count which is normally known as the kingpin statute and...

GREENE: There's a statute that literally uses the word kingpin?

HONG: Well, the technical legal term is continuing criminal enterprise. And if he is convicted on that charge alone, it's mandatory life in prison.

GREENE: Oh, wow. Well, I mean - 30 years, you say - this has been a very long time coming. Remind us why it took so long to get him into a U.S. courtroom.

HONG: Well, like you point out, part of the reason is because he had escaped twice from prisons in Mexico.

GREENE: Yeah.

HONG: And I think after the second time, just the public perception of Mexico's ability to handle this had really dropped. So after the U.S. promised not to seek the death penalty against him, Mexico agreed to extradite him. And here we are today. Another reason why there were some delays is because he obviously fought his extradition for a long time. But they finally got him to the U.S. last year in January.

GREENE: OK, so the death penalty is not an option here. That was an agreement that the U.S. made.

HONG: Right.

GREENE: So what - how long is this trial going to last if we're talking about, you know, this kingpin count and also all of these other drug charges.

HONG: So this is going to take about three to four months, which is a really long trial. And, you know, that sort of length poses all sorts of challenges, including jurors who can sit for that long and making sure the government has a clean narrative through it all. So that will definitely be an obstacle for the prosecution.

GREENE: So when you escape twice from a maximum security prison - I mean, it sounds like the security around that courthouse is insane, like something out of an action movie. Can you tell me a little about it?

HONG: Yes. So I mean, I was there one day last week during jury selection, and they wouldn't even let us bring water into the courthouse. It was like airport level security. And, you know, it's really - I've been covering courts for years now. It's really - I haven't seen anything like this. There are dogs everywhere. There are - you know, you can see people with Homeland Security, NYPD uniforms on with weapons. And, yeah, it's just really is an extraordinary level of security.

GREENE: So I've served on a jury. And I had this expectation of, you know, I'm safe. I'm in a courthouse. There's security around. But I just think about - like, the name El Chapo itself inspires fear. So if you're a juror in that courtroom, like, I mean, are you nervous?

HONG: I mean, many of them did express some nervousness. And a lot of them said they recognized his name. One juror said that she had googled El Chapo and then killed jurors and then was freaked out by some of the articles she read.

GREENE: Oh, wow.

HONG: So yeah, that's another challenge too although, you know, his lawyers have said, you know, the government hasn't presented any actual evidence that he has the current ability to kill anybody. So yeah, the jurors will be transported to and from the courthouse every day by federal marshals for their safety.

GREENE: All right, opening statements begin today in the trial of El Chapo. And we have been talking to Nicole Hong who's going to be covering that trial for the Wall Street Journal. Thanks, Nicole.

HONG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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