NEW YORK >> For more than a year now, an only-in-New York transportation nightmare has been caused by the case of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the Mexican drug lord best known as El Chapo.
In a highly unusual move, Guzmán is facing trial in Brooklyn, but, because of his proclivity for breaking out of prison, he is being held in a high-security federal jail in Lower Manhattan.
Every few months or so, whenever he is called to go to court, something awful happens: The police must close the entire Brooklyn Bridge, stranding hundreds of motorists as the world’s biggest drug lord is swept across the East River in a speeding motorcade of heavily armored cars.
And when the trial begins in November, the traffic could get worse because Guzmán will need to be escorted over the span twice a day, for up to four months. These closures would happen, inconveniently enough, precisely during the morning and evening rush hours.
This temporary gridlock brought on by the criminal-justice system has not only annoyed those who use the bridge, but has given Guzmán’s lawyers ground to complain. Earlier this year they asked a judge to move the trial to Manhattan — or even Philadelphia — claiming the “spectacle” of shutting down a major traffic artery could prejudice a jury of commuters against their client.
Judge Brian M. Cogan acknowledged today that the traffic headaches of city motorists (and potential jurors) were “valid concerns,” but he said he had nonetheless decided to keep the trial in Brooklyn. Still, he promised to do his best to spare New Yorkers more transit trauma. At a hearing in U.S. Court in Brooklyn, the judge said he had been working with the U.S. Marshals to come up with a solution to the problem, though he gave no clue what the solution was.
That raised certain questions. Would Guzmán be transferred to the less secure, but more convenient, federal jail in Brooklyn? Would he be flown over the river in a helicopter every day? Or be ferried across it in a boat?
No one seemed to know — or if they did, they weren’t saying. The Marshals Service, which is responsible for transporting defendants, did not respond to phone calls seeking comment. The city’s Transportation Department referred all inquiries to the New York Police Department. The police, in turn, said nothing.
Speaking to reporters after the hearing, one of Guzmán’s lawyers, William B. Purpura, speculated that the marshals would house Guzmán at — or near — the Brooklyn courthouse during trial days, but, he said, he wasn’t sure if his client would return to Manhattan for the weekends.
“They’ve done it before for other proceedings,” Purpura added, “where they’ll build a facility here.”
All of this fretting is necessary because Guzmán, 61, has twice escaped from maximum-security prisons in Mexico — once, according to his lore, secreted in a laundry cart and once by way of a mile-long tunnel that was dug into the shower of his cell.
When Guzmán was extradited to New York last year to face charges of running a vast and violent criminal empire, federal officials promised there would be no tunnels this time. They placed him in what is called 10 South, the most secure wing of the city’s most secure federal jail, the Metropolitan Correctional Center. There, Guzmán is locked behind bars for 23 hours a day and is denied most visitors except for members of his legal team. His lawyers have argued that the harsh conditions of confinement have hindered his ability to prepare for trial.
The most sobering accusation the government has made so far in the case is that Guzmán personally ordered the deaths of thousands of people during his decadeslong reign atop the Sinaloa drug cartel. In recent months, federal prosecutors have started to reveal the names — and the manners of death — of some of his alleged victims, including members of Los Zetas, a rival drug cartel, whom he is said to have shot in the head after relaxing over lunch. But many of those who were killed years ago have been identified only by their categorical labels: “Informants,” for example, or “members of law enforcement.”
At today’s hearing, Cogan said he was inclined to exclude from the trial at least some of the evidence about these vaguely described assassinations, which would severely limit the number of murders that the jury in the case may ultimately hear about. Cogan added that he planned to publish an order on the issue of the killings later this week.
Guzmán’s other lawyer, A. Eduardo Balarezo, has complained about the lack of details concerning these killings, saying it is almost impossible to defend his client when all the government has revealed to him is — to give just one example — that Guzmán killed an untold number of unnamed “associates who betrayed” the drug cartel at some point between 1989 and 2014.
“We are defending this case with two hands tied and one eye closed,” Balarezo said.