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Feds take extraordinary measures to protect witnesses’ lives expected to testify in upcoming “El Chapo” trial

October 5, 2018  |  Posted by: Francesca Falzarano
Feds take extraordinary measures to protect witnesses’ lives expected to testify in upcoming “El Chapo” trial L

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As federal officials in New York get ready for the trial of the world’s most notorious drug lord — Joaquín Guzmán Loera, who is better known as El Chapo — they have taken extraordinary measures to prevent those who will testify from getting killed.

Brooklyn federal prosecutors are expected to trot out a list of up to 40 cooperating witnesses, including top-level cartel operatives and informants to testify against Guzman.

El Chapo’s legal team maintain that those strict protective orders have made crafting a strong defense more difficult.

A recent report published by the New York Times lists a few of the extraordinary security measures Justice Department prosecutors have taken to protect the cooperating witnesses, and issues at the trial that affect them, under a veil of secrecy.

After El Chapo was extradited to Brooklyn from Mexico in 2017, prosecutors have asserted that he is an “extreme danger” to the numerous former associates, rivals, and underlings who will be asked to testify against him.

The government has continuously declined to name the witnesses in any public records, claiming that if it does, the Sinaloa drug cartel, which Guzmán led for two decades, could surely seek revenge.

 

“El Chapo” pictured in 2017 after his extradition to the U.S.

For example, in late September, when the government gave basic information about the witnesses to Mr. Guzmán’s defense, it did so in a 100-page memo, almost half of which was redacted and unreadable. Secrecy has been so pivotal in the case that when the defense replied to the memo three days later, asking for more information about the witnesses, the document was sealed.

The chief complaint brought forth by Guzmán’s attorney, A. Eduardo Balarezo, is that the government is intending to withhold the witnesses’ names until the night before the trial. He has contended that doing so will hamper his ability to investigate their claims and create a defense against them.

Some of the witnesses are already behind bars and are in protective custody units “in light of the great risk to their lives,” court documents indicate.

Others have been placed in the witness protection program kept at unknown locations and have been assigned new identities. Under the program’s rules, those individuals have been informed: “to cut off ties with family and friends to maintain the highest levels of protection.”

Prosecutors have also worried about the jury’s safety. Earlier this year, they convinced a federal judge, Brian M. Cogan, to enable the jurors to carry out their duties anonymously.

Outside the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan where “El Chapo” remains in custody awaiting his upcoming trial (Photo: M. FALZARANO JAMMEDUP NEWS)

Judge Cogan ruled to allow the jurors to appear in a rare closed session carried out in his private chambers.

Strict protective measures of witnesses are imperative because Guzmán has a history of murdering and abducting those who have tried to speak against him, prosecutors argued.

Officials said the security protocols has made toe process challenging to confirm the government’s allegations because, as with so many aspects of the case, they are included in sealed documents.

In 2016, Vicente Bermúdez Zacarías, a Mexican judge who was involved in Guzmán’s extradition battle, went for a run in his hometown, Metepec, when an assailant fatally shot him in the head.

In 2009, prosecutors claim, the father of Pedro and Margarito Flores, twin brothers from Chicago who were cooperating against Chapo with U.S. officials was captured and killed when he was in Mexico.

The Flores twins oversaw the largest nationwide distribution network for the Sinaloa Cartel under the direct orders of El Chapo before agreeing to cooperate with the feds.

In the Brooklyn case, Guzmán has been accused of planning the deaths of thousands as he managed his drug empire along with charges that he smuggled over 200 tons of cocaine into the U.S.

Before he was extradited, Guzmán also managed to escape from Mexican prisons on two occasions.

Despite his nefarious past, Guzmán’s attorneys have refuted the notion that he is a threat to anyone given that he has spent the two years in what is called 10 South, the maximum-security unit of the Metropolitan Correctional Center, New York City’s most impenetrable prison.

At MCC, he has been kept under lock and key, except for an hour a day. He is allowed to have visitations from his attorneys and his 7-year-old daughters.

Each month, El Chapo is permitted two 15-minutes phone calls with his mother and his sister, to which the government listens to. Aside from that, he is “completely isolated from the world outside of his cell,” Balarezo said last month.

Due to those “extremely restrictive conditions,” Balarezo maintains that it is impossible for El Chapo to inform his associates to kill or kidnap any witnesses.

“In fact,” he recently said, “unless the government is suggesting that the defense will disseminate hit orders from Guzmán, there is no realistic way for him to do anything.”

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