The View from the Outside at the Start of the ‘El Chapo’ Trial in Brooklyn

By Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio

Journalists outside the federal courthouse in Brooklyn Monday morning. (The Ink/Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio).

About 30 onlookers braved a downpour early Monday outside the federal courthouse in Brooklyn hoping to catch a glimpse of the infamous Mexican drug lord, Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, whose long-awaited trial finally began with initial jury selection.

Though New York police vehicles and vans from the Department of Homeland Security lined the streets around U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, the spectacle was relatively calm for one of the most heavily anticipated court cases in recent New York history.

Most pedestrians pushed past the courthouse and the large media contingent outside the building with seemingly little interest in what was going on, trying to avoid the sea of umbrellas covering reporters and their cameras. But some had traveled far to experience the scene.

“I’m hoping to get close—I don’t know how it will be possible at the moment, but I really want to go in the courthouse,” said Peter-Conradin Schreiber, 26, a law student from Zurich, Switzerland. “My friend and I, we have followed every step of El Chapo’s story, especially when he escaped prison in Mexico.”

Schreiber said he is visiting graduate schools in New York and said he planned his trip to the United States so that he could be present on the trial dates.

“I’m fascinated by it,” said Schreiber of the trial. “I love ‘Narcos,’ the series, and it reminds me of it.”

He and other onlookers outside saw little beyond the large media presence and heavy police deployment outside the courthouse. There was no sign of ‘El Chapo.’

But Guzman was very much present inside the courthouse.

Five pool reporters were allowed in the courtroom during jury selection, including Vice News correspondent Keegan Hamilton. “Chapo was looking very fly today. Not wearing prison jumpsuit,” Hamilton wrote in a twitter post. “He had on a navy suit jacket and a white shirt w/ a thick collar, 70s disco-style. Two buttons undone.”

Mondays’ proceedings were the beginning of what is expected to be at least a four-month trial for Guzman.

Guzman is accused of running what was the world’s largest drug syndicate. The multi-billion dollar operation allegedly smuggled more than 150,000 kilograms of cocaine and other drugs to the U.S. market between 1989 and 2014. Prosecutors have said they want  to link Guzman to 33 killings.

He has twice broken out of prisons in Mexico, once reportedly in a laundry cart and once via a tunnel dug beneath his maximum-security prison outside Mexico City.

Angel Eduardo Balazero, left, one of Guzman’s defense attorneys, enters the courthouse Monday morning. (The Ink/Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio)

In early 2017, Guzman was extradited to the United States. He has remained jailed at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan since his arrival in New York.

Guzman’s transportation from Manhattan to Brooklyn has been a matter of significant media focus since August, when pre-trial hearings shut down traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge as Guzman was transported from his isolation cell in downtown Manhattan to the courtroom.

Speculation about where Guzman was being held dominated conversation outside the courthouse on Monday morning.

“The judge made a comment about possibly accommodating him with closer living quarters,” said Ed Vullinamy, senior correspondent for The Guardian, as he stood in in Cadman Plaza Park, in front of the courthouse.

“It’s possible that they are keeping him in a cell inside the courthouse so that he doesn’t have to be transported with all the security personnel across the Brooklyn Bridge twice a day for four months,” said Vullimany, who has covered narco-trafficking issues in Latin America.

With jury trial proceedings beginning at 9:30 a.m., traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge seemed to proceed normally—just a single police car flashed its lights at the Manhattan entrance of the bridge at 7:30 a.m.

But news outlets reported Monday afternoon that Guzman was transported to the courthouse in the early morning with a large police motorcade. It’s not clear where he was spending the night.

Police presence around the courthouse was heavier than usual, journalists and viewers outside the courthouse said, but not overwhelming. Five U.S. Marshals Service officials stood guard outside the courthouse. Bomb sniffing dogs, NYPD officers and NYPD emergency service cars circled the area, though the outside of courthouse was not heavily barricaded.

Mariano Moreno, a 26-year-old Mexican radio correspondent, said the day did not live up to pre-trial hype.

“I really was expecting more of a police presence,” Moreno said just before taking an iPhone selfie in front of the glass entrance of the courthouse. “In Mexico, El Chapo’s such a famous figure; there would definitely be more commotion there.”

The major action in the morning came when one of Guzman’s defense attorneys, Angel Eduardo Balazero, entered the federal building, followed by a frenzy of journalists brandishing recorders and video cameras. He flashed a theatrical thumbs-up to the media as he stepped through the doors to attend jury selection.

Authorities hope to conclude jury selection this week. Because of security concerns, the identity of the 12 jurors and six alternates will remain secret.

Opening statements in the case are scheduled to begin Nov. 13.