National News

Lawyer Asks to Move the El Chapo ‘Circus’ and Avoid Tying Up the City

Posted May 7, 2018 7:34 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — At this early stage of his criminal prosecution, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the Mexican drug lord known as El Chapo, does not appear in court that often. But when he does, getting him there requires a remarkable rerouting of New York City traffic.

Since last January, Guzmán has been held in a high-security jail in lower Manhattan, and every three months or so, when he is called to the Brooklyn courthouse where his case is being heard, the Brooklyn Bridge is closed and he is swept across the East River in a motorcade of armored cars, police cruisers and an ambulance or two — most of them with their lights and sirens blaring.

On Sunday, Guzmán’s lawyer, A. Eduardo Balarezo, sought to put an end to this vehicular parade. In court papers, he asked the judge who is handling the case to move it out of Brooklyn altogether, claiming that “the spectacle of Mr. Guzmán’s transportation” violated his right to a fair trial.

“The unprecedented, highly visible, and disruptive security measures taken by the government every time it transports Mr. Guzmán are likely to be seen or heard about by innumerable potential and seated jurors,” Balarezo wrote. The conspicuous process of getting his client to the courthouse was, Balarezo added, “akin to driving a sign” that said “'dangerous man inside.'”

Scheduled for trial in September in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, the Guzmán case has, so far, had a little bit of everything. There have been gory accounts of murders Guzmán is said to have committed, highly technical arguments about his extradition, and endless descriptions of his harsh conditions of confinement.

But until now, there has been no public mention of the eye- (and ear-) catching way in which he has been moved from jail to court and back. As Balarezo noted, the bridge closings, which will only become more frequent once the trial begins, could not only prejudice the jurors in the case, but also annoy thousands of New York drivers.

To solve the problem, Balarezo suggested moving the trial either to Manhattan (where the federal courthouse is connected to the Metropolitan Correctional Center, the jail where Guzmán is being held) or to Philadelphia (where the local courthouse is near another jail that could safely hold his client.)

Such concerns are foremost in the minds of authorities, given that Guzmán twice escaped from prison while in Mexico, the first time in a laundry cart and the second time by way of a mile-long tunnel dug into the shower of his cell.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn declined to comment on Balarezo’s request for a change of venue, which will now be considered by Judge Brian M. Cogan, who has already issued several rulings that have disappointed Guzmán.

And while Balarezo acknowledged that turning a traffic jam into a constitutional argument was a novel legal tactic, he also said that Guzman’s situation was untenable.

“It’s a circus every time he goes to court,” he said.