MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Jury selection begins today in the trial of the notorious Mexican drug lord Joaquin Guzman He's being tried in Brooklyn's federal courthouse on drug trafficking and conspiracy charges. The indictment spans decades. Prosecutors say Guzman's criminal organization smuggled tons of drugs into the U.S., laundered billions of dollars and executed dozens of its rivals. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Guzman's nickname is El Chapo, Shorty in Spanish, due to his size. He's just about five-foot-six-inches tall. But if prosecutors are to be believed, Chapo was a giant overseeing a drug smuggling enterprise like no other in the world. To prosecute this kingpin, former federal prosecutor Laurie Levenson says the government has brought their A-team, the Eastern District of New York.
LAURIE LEVENSON: This prosecution office is really respected as one of the top prosecution offices in the country.
KAHN: A spokesman for the district says prosecutors are not commenting on the case. Security around the courthouse in downtown Brooklyn will be tight throughout the trial, and jurors' identities will remain anonymous, too. Levenson says that's not unusual, but the complexity of the trial is.
LEVENSON: It's a huge case any way you look at it. When you look at the allegations in the indictment, the number of witnesses who will testify, the international cooperation here, this is as big as it gets.
KAHN: Guzman, now 61 years old, has been held in the high-security wing of the Manhattan federal jail since he was extradited to the U.S. early last year. One of his lawyers, Jeffrey Lichtman, says Guzman has been held in solitary confinement, locked in a cell for 23 hours a day.
JEFFREY LICHTMAN: The 9/11 co-conspirators were kept in better conditions than Mr. Guzman, so I think he's happy to finally get out of there with very little human contact.
KAHN: Guzman will attend the trial every day. In pre-trial hearings, police even closed the Brooklyn Bridge to securely transfer Guzman from Manhattan. While some criticize the high level of security and commuters' inconvenience, Guzman did escape twice from Mexican prisons at great embarrassment to the Mexican government.
During his months on the lam, Chapo gave an interview to actors Kate del Castillo and Sean Penn.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROOSTER CROWING)
KAHN: In a short video Guzman filmed for the actors, roosters crow loudly, and heavily armed men walk in and out of the camera shot, and Guzman provided what could be damning evidence. In it, Guzman says where he grew up, there were no other opportunities than to grow marijuana and heroin poppies.
Penn says Chapo boasted to him of supplying more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world. Prosecutors agree and, according to court filings, will produce a mountain of evidence to support that claim, including more than 100,000 audio recordings and tens of thousands of documents as well as the testimony of former traffickers now cooperating with the government.
Defense lawyer Lichtman says those ex-associates are themselves highly suspect.
LICHTMAN: They've got long histories of criminal activity and dishonesty. Mr. Guzman has been mischaracterized. I think he's been a wonderful scapegoat.
KAHN: Hinting at his defense, Lichtman says one person can't have done all that the government is accusing him of. Evidence of that, some analysts say, is the fact that Guzman's Sinaloa cartel is still operating.
Last week, the DEA released its annual National Drug Threat Assessment, naming the cartel as one of the major criminal organizations operating in Mexico. And a congressional research report released this year says the cartel may be resilient to high-level arrests. Researcher Cecilia Farfan-Mendez at the University of California at San Diego agrees.
CECILIA FARFAN-MENDEZ: Drug trafficking is a complex task that requires, you know, many moving parts and requires many different expertise.
KAHN: Guzman himself says as much in that interview tape for actors del Castillo and Sean Penn.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOAQUIN GUZMAN: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "The day I no longer exist, drug trafficking won't end - not one bit," he says. Joaquin Guzman's trial is expected to last four months. If convicted, he faces life in prison. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.