A federal judge concerned over the safety of jurors has ordered special protections for the panel of people who will eventually determine the fate of the notorious Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
The trial isn’t set to start until later this year, but U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan ruled Monday that the jury will be anonymous and partially sequestered “to protect the integrity of the trial and to mitigate any fear of harassment or intimidation in the jurors’ minds.”
Cogan added that federal prosecutors “presented strong and credible reasons to believe that the jury needs protection.”
He added that the high media profile of the case coupled with the violent history of the Sinaloa cartel, which the government asserts Guzman controlled for 25 years, required additional protective measures.
“The indictment alleges that the defendant, as a leader of the Sinaloa cartel, employed ‘sicarios,’ or hit men, who carried out acts of violence, including murders, assaults and kidnappings,” Cogan wrote.
He also cited reports that a California prison gang has volunteered to support Guzman while he is in the United States.
Cogan said jurors will be transported to and from the Brooklyn courthouse each trial day, and will be sequestered from the public while in the building. He said they will be told the transportation and escort are not for safety reasons, but “to protect their privacy and ensure that the trial proceeds expeditiously.”
The defense had opposed the move arguing that having an anonymous jury would undermine the defendant’s presumption of innocence and give the impression that Guzman is dangerous.
Guzman’s attorney, Eduardo Balarezo, said Tuesday that his client was disappointed by the ruling. “All he is asking for is a fair trial in front of an impartial jury,” Belarezo said in an emailed statement.
Charges against Guzman in the U.S. include murder, trafficking of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, and money laundering. However, Guzman has pleaded not guilty to running an international drug smuggling operation.
Guzman was extradited to the U.S. over a year ago after managing two elaborate escapes from Mexican prisons.
As NPR’s Carrie Kahn reported, “In 2015 he got out via a long tunnel with a motorcycle track beneath what was supposed to be the country’s most secure prison. During his freedom then, he secretly met with actor Sean Penn, who wrote about the encounter for Rolling Stone magazine. Some Mexican officials claimed that helped lead to Guzman’s capture shortly afterward.”
Guzman will appear in court again on February 15 for a pretrial hearing. The judge has indicated he expects the trial to begin in the fall.