The New York trial opened Monday under huge security for Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, one of the world’s most notorious criminals accused of spending a quarter of a century smuggling cocaine into the United States.
The defendant accused of running the massive Sinaloa drug cartel, observed the first day of jury selection dressed in a navy suit, white shirt with a wide disco-style collar, flashing a smile but otherwise impervious.
The marathon Brooklyn federal trial, which is expected to last more than four months, will see Guzman face the US justice system after twice escaping prison in Mexico, once hidden in a laundry cart and then slipping down a tunnel that reached his prison shower.
US prosecutors have spent years piecing together a case that they hope will end with the 61-year-old spending the rest of his life in a maximum-security US prison.
Opening arguments are scheduled to start on November 13, after a week of jury selection, held behind closed doors under security reserved for the most dangerous defendants.
Of about 100 potential jurors, 45 were interviewed by Judge Brian Cogan on Monday, of which 17 were dismissed and no one yet impanelled.
The judge struck two women after they raised security concerns about presiding over the proceedings, expected to cost millions and turn into the most expensive federal trial in US history.
“What scares me is that his family could come after jurors and their families,” one of the women told the court, just feet away from where Guzman was sitting, saying she felt “nervous” and “unsafe.”
The 12 jurors, with six alternates, will remain anonymous and once selected, will be partially sequestered. US Marshals will escort them to and from the federal court every day.
A moment of levity came when one potential juror was asked about a deli near his workplace stocking a sandwich called “El Chapo.”
It’s a bagel with cream cheese, lox and capers, he replied. “I don’t know why it’s called the El Chapo, but it’s delicious,” he added to laughter from Guzman’s lawyer and an unimpressed defendant.
Twelve ordinary men and women will determine whether Guzman — the diminutive father of two whose nickname means “shorty” — is guilty or not of 11 trafficking, firearms and money laundering charges.
According to the indictment, the Sinaloa cartel, which Guzman is accused of leading from 1989 to 2014, became “the largest drug trafficking organisation in the world.”
Prosecutors say that from 1989 to 2014, the cartel smuggled 340,892 pounds (154,626 kilograms) of cocaine into the United States, as well as heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana, raking in $14 billion.
Guzman pleads not guilty, but the government has presented so much evidence — more than 300,000 pages and at least 117,000 recordings — that the defence complains they haven’t had time to review it all.
At least some of the several hundred witnesses expected to testify are in witness protection programs or are already in jail, housed in special wings to protect them from reprisals.
The Sinaloa cartel that Guzman founded in 1989 is still hugely powerful. His co-defendant Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada remains at large, and violent drug trafficking continues unabated in Mexico.
Last year, Mexico witnessed a record 29,000 murders. In the United States, opioid addiction has spiraled into an epidemic. In 2016, an average of 174 Americans died every day from drug overdoses.
Guzman has been held in solitary confinement since Mexico extradited him in January 2017, one day before Donald Trump took office. He spends 23 hours a day in his cell.
The only visitors he is allowed are his lawyers and twin, seven-year-old daughters, from whom he is separated by thick glass.
The judge has banned his 29-year-old beauty queen wife, Emma Coronel, from visiting. As jury selection is being held behind closed doors, she did not attend Monday.
Arrested for the first time in Guatemala in 1993, El Chapo spent more than seven years in a Mexican prison before his first escape in 2001.
Re-arrested in February 2014, he escaped again 14 months later.
Guzman was re-captured in January 2016 after a visit from Hollywood actor Sean Penn and a Mexican actress, who wanted to make a film about his life, allowed Mexican authorities to trace his whereabouts.
This time, Mexico decided to wash their hands of him and put him on a plane.