I’ve spent many years learning, analysing and writing about the Kingpins of the drug world and how despite constrained operating conditions (i.e. pretty much everything they do is illegal), they are able to create these massive empires that generate billions of dollars, using innovation and systematised business practices and perhaps a little bit of intimidation and bloodshed thrown in for good measure.

So it was with immense anticipation that I turned up to the Brooklyn Federal Court on the morning of Monday 19 November to see Joaquin El Chapo Guzman face trial in the US.

Brooklyn Federal Court

The trial started a week ago on November 13 and it’s expected to go for four months.  The first thing I notice is the security. It was more intense than US airport security, and while it is normal to go through security when you enter a Court – this was the next level.  After going through the scanner, I hand my mobile to security downstairs, proceed up to level 8, and find Court Room 8C.  To actually get into the Court, involved another round of security scanning, a lot of signs at this point in Spanish and English reminding people not to bring guns or knives into the Court.  I had to hand ID to the security, they took down my name and gave me a number.

I was ushered into the overflow Court because there were too many observers (from what I could tell they were mostly journalists).  So, I watched the trial live on three large screens.

Downtown Brooklyn

There is A LOT of security in the courtroom also, and I can see how big the legal teams are, there are a lot of people on the prosecution team, and the defence team seems smaller.  There seems to be three main lawyers running the case for the prosecution.

The significance of this trial has been espoused the world over by journalists. This is the first time a major Mexican Kingpin has been tried in the US.  When this has happened in the past, those arrested have pleaded guilty, but El Chapo is the first major figure in the Mexican drug world who has gone to trial in the US.  El Chapo faces a 17 count indictment that covers nearly three decades of alleged criminal activities. He’s accused of directing massive shipments of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana, and faces life in prison if convicted.  He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

For me, having written a book about seven Kingpins, with El Chapo being one of them, and having just read and written about the Sinoloa Cartel, being here at Court feels like the characters from my book are stepping off the page, and coming to life in front of me.

The witness who is giving evidence is Jesus ‘El Rey’ Zambada, he is understood to be one of El Chapo’s closest allies, and worked for him for a long time. He ran the Mexico City Cartel.  I find his evidence pretty disturbing, he’s essentially providing a tour to the inner workings of the Cartel.

Zambada speaks Spanish, and so the Prosecutor asks her questions (in English) and a translator then translates it for him (into Spanish), and he provides his evidence (in Spanish) and the translator translates the evidence back to English.  Zambada is dressed very casually for someone who is giving evidence at the Federal Court – and also for someone who is also being held as a prisoner (in the US).

There is a Cartel organisational chart on display in the courtroom, with photographs of the key players of the Cartel to assist the jurors in understanding the evolution of the management structure.  It’s a little alarming when the Prosecutor, as she leads the witness through his testimony, simply removes pictures of each figure as the chronology progresses. As Zambada tells of people being killed – their photographs are removed, gone, just like that, off the chart.

It’s disturbing, and yet disarmingly fascinating, to see the brutality and disregard for life at the centre of these Cartels.

Zambada’s evidence in the morning I spent in Court covers:

  1. El Chapo ordering the murder of a man who refused to shake his hand at a meeting in 2004.
  2. How that killing fuelled a war between the cartels (with many casualties).
  3. About a 20-tonne cocaine shipment from Panama that was intercepted by the US Coast Guard as it was leaving, in which El Chapo had a significant investment – and how the negotiation with the Columbian Kingpin in charge of the shipment went after the interception.
  4. Descriptions of brutal murders, a statement that El Chapo would carry several firearms at once, including AK-47s, AR-15s, and bazookas, the jurors were shown a photo of a pistol decorated with Guzman’s initials as the witness described the brutal way the cartel dealt with various violent threats and personal slights.

As I leave I think about the Jury, the massive amount of evidence they will need to consume, decipher and understand over the coming months.  The Jury are anonymous and don’t sit inside the Courtroom for fear of retribution. I respect the bravery needed by them to be make a decision on what is one of the largest drug trials in history.

Outside Court

I am glad I went to Court for the morning, I learned a lot and it really brought the characters and the business activities of these Kingpins to life in a way that watching Narcos or the Sopranos never will!!

You can also listen (or read) here the interview I did with Jules Schiller the week before I went to the US.


To read more about El Chapo and how other Kingpins navigate the risky and volatile Underworld to operate their businesses you can grab a copy of Kingpin: Legal Lessons from the Underworld by clicking on the link below.