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Trial for alleged drug kingpin El Chapo Guzman begins under tight security in Brooklyn



Mexican drug lord Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman is known for daring prison escapes.

NEW YORK — Alleged Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman somehow always managed to get away.

Until now.

Amid heavy security, jury selection began Monday in Brooklyn federal court for the criminal enterprise and conspiracy trial against the legendary accused drug lord whose electrifying escapes from Mexican prisons captured headlines worldwide.

Guzman, who allegedly continued to run the world’s largest drug-trafficking operation even while behind bars in Mexico, now faces the possibility of life imprisonment in the United States. His trial is expected to last two to four months.

Federal authorities have imposed high security to prevent Guzman from slipping away yet again. He’s been held in solitary confinement in a high-security federal cell in Manhattan since January 2017, when Mexico agreed to allow his extradition to the United States for trial.

The Brooklyn Bridge was closed to traffic each time federal officials transported him from his cell for pretrial hearings at the federal courthouse near the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood.

U.S. District Court Judge Brian Cogan has said he will try to develop alternative security logistics so the bridge would not be closed twice a day during the trial.

That led to speculation Monday that Guzman would be held in a special cell deep within the Brooklyn courthouse facility. Federal officials declined to comment, citing the high-security concerns.

The courthouse was a veritable fortress Monday, as heavily armed officers and bomb-sniffing dogs periodically checked the exterior.

In another security measure, the names of potential jurors — a panel assembled from 1,000 summonses issued to residents of New York’s Eastern Judicial District — will not be released. The eventual panelists will be escorted to and from the federal courthouse by federal marshals.

Cogan last week barred members of the public from attending the trial sessions when potential jurors are asked about their knowledge of the case, any hesitation about serving, and whether they can render a fair and impartial verdict.

The judge ruled that just five news reporters, a fraction of the swarm of media representatives following the trial, will be allowed in the courtroom during jury selection.

The identities of most scheduled prosecution witnesses also are being kept secret.

Opening statements are tentatively scheduled for Nov. 13.

Prosecutors say Joaquin Archivaldo Guzman Loera led the Sinaloa Cartel, an alleged criminal enterprise that imported and distributed massive amounts of drugs into the United States, between January 1989 and December 2014.

Guzman, 61, is charged with 17 criminal counts including drug trafficking, conspiring to murder rivals, money laundering, and weapons offenses. Prosecutors say the Sinaloa Cartel, named for Guzman’s home state, smuggled more than 200 tons of cocaine into the United States.

Guzman’s lawyers say the allegations are based on the false testimony of killers and drug dealers.

Prosecutors say Guzman’s operation earned more than $14 billion. His defense team says he has struggled to pay his legal bills.

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El Chapo made world headlines in July 2015 when he slipped out of his cell at the maximum security Altiplano federal prison via a mile-long underground tunnel. The dramatic escape triggered a worldwide manhunt that ended six months later in a deadly shootout in Los Mochis, a coastal city in Sinaloa.

Arely Gómez González, Mexico’s attorney general at the time, said the search drew few valuable clues until Guzman reached out to actors and producers and began planning a movie about his life.

That tipped off investigators to his location. Gómez said a journey to the rugged Sierra Madre by American actor Sean Penn put investigators on Guzman’s doorstep.

El Chapo — “Shorty,” for his 5-foot-6 stature — has been an iconic figure in the drug trade for decades.

He was captured in Guatemala in 1993 and extradited to Mexico. He was serving a 20-year sentence on drug-trafficking charges in a different prison when he pulled off an intricate escape in 2001. He was recaptured in Mexico in February 2014.

Authorities say he maintained his grip on the Sinaloa Cartel. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says he was able to remain a force by communicating with his son and other cartel leaders through lawyers and others who visited him at the Altiplano prison outside Mexico City.

Guzman was extradited to the United States in January 2017 on an indictment that detailed his alleged reign over a merciless trafficking organization controlled through murder and torture.

“Guzman Loera is accused of using violence, including torture and murder, to maintain an iron-fisted grip on the drug trade across the U.S.-Mexico border,” then-Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Robert Capers said. “Guzman Loera made billions of illicit dollars. “This prosecution demonstrates that we will apply all available resources to dismantle the leadership of dangerous drug cartels, wherever they operate, and will not rest until we have done so.”

Bacon reported from Virginia. McCoy reported from New York.

Contributing: Associated Press

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