El Chapo meets his match: Brooklyn

Story highlights

  • Paul Callan: El Chapo's criminal road ends in Brooklyn where he'll face a crack prosecuting team, jurors not easily swayed
  • He says Brooklyn venue has handled many notorious cases, will need to take great care to keep witnesses, jurors safe

Paul Callan is a CNN legal analyst, a former New York homicide prosecutor and currently is "of counsel" to the New York law firm of Edelman and Edelman, PC, focusing on wrongful conviction and civil rights cases. Follow him @paulcallan. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)One of the world's most notorious drug kingpins and prolific prison escape artists, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, was extradited to the United States last Thursday in what was undoubtedly a pre-Trump inauguration gift from Mexican authorities to the Obama administration. "El Chapo," as he is customarily known, was immediately brought to the federal courthouse in Brooklyn for his arraignment on a 17-count indictment for which he faces life in prison.

Prosecutors across the country would like to get their hands on the alleged chieftain of Mexico's powerful Sinaloa cartel for crimes that have touched the lives of thousands of Americans. And even if federal authorities in Brooklyn fail to obtain a conviction in their wide-ranging conspiracy and drug trafficking indictment, Guzman faces similarly serious charges in California, Illinois, Florida, Texas and New Hampshire.
But there is an excellent chance it will end here for El Chapo, in Brooklyn.
Let's talk for a moment about Brooklyn.
Prosecutors in Brooklyn's federal court, the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York, have a reputation for handling sophisticated, high-profile cases ranging from terrorism to financial fraud and organized crime. Given the number of federal prosecutors competing to get El Chapo convicted, you can be sure the Department of Justice made a careful evaluation of the venue, with the strongest case, the most experienced prosecutors, best judges, and courtroom and jail facilities capable of handling the trial of such an infamous criminal defendant.
But there is another reason Brooklyn will likely best the Mexican drug kingpin, a man seemingly impervious to incarceration. El Chapo is about to learn the same lesson that I learned many years ago when I was recruited from Boston College Law School to commence my legal career as an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn: All human life intersects with Brooklyn. Some magical, mystical, magnetic force seems to draw the big and notorious cases to the borough.
Almost 3 million people from virtually every corner of the Earth reside in Brooklyn. Guzman will have the opportunity to meet some of them because they will sit on his jury, a diverse Brooklyn jury of the world-wise and street-smart. They will not be shocked by prosecutors making deals with "stool pigeons," snitches and paid informants. They know El Chapo didn't hang out with Mother Teresa. They will look at the evidence with Brooklyn eyes and will likely convict him and consign him to a very spartan existence at a federal supermax prison.
While he awaits trial, his thoughts will inevitably drift to his favorite hobby, escape. There is trouble on that horizon. El Chapo, who has escaped from at least two high-security Mexican prisons using sophisticated tunnels, will soon discover he is incarcerated, for the moment, at Manhattan's premier federal detention facility, the Metropolitan Correctional Center, which like the rest of Manhattan, sits on a base of solid bedrock.
To the south, Guzman would find himself tunneling into NYC police headquarters, while going in either a northerly or westerly direction would bring him directly into a state or federal courthouse.
To the southeast, he'd wind up in the swirling, frigid waters of the East River, narrowly missing some of lower Manhattan's fine Mexican restaurants. Overall, escape possibilities are grim, and the tabloids have previously reported that he has been going "mad" from a lack of sleep and sex with his beauty queen wife during the extradition process.
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But when he gets his day in court, he can comfort himself with knowledge of the camera-ready notoriety that attaches to the Brooklyn venue.
Film fans may remember two cases that generated Academy Award-nominated films, the "Wolf of Wall Street," starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the defendant and former stock-broker Jordan Belfort, and, of course, "American Hustle," a movie take on the infamous Abscam sting, which resulted in the arrest and conviction of US Sen. Harrison Williams and a host of other politicians.
And we can reach back a little earlier in time to "Dog Day Afternoon," which helped make Al Pacino's famous. The list goes on and on, which means El Chapo can be sure that when the film is made about his alleged crimes and Brooklyn trial, it will follow in the footsteps of Academy Award winners. While their footsteps were memorialized in cement on Hollywood Boulevard, his will likely take him to Colorado's famous supermax prison, from which no one ever escapes.
Prosecutors have handed down an extensive and impressive indictment. The Eastern District's US Attorney Robert Capers, who replaced Loretta Lynch when she became the US attorney general, summed it up best, describing Guzman's "murderous rise" and comparing him to a "small cancerous tumor that metastasized and grew into a full-blown scourge that for decades littered the streets of Mexico with casualties of violent drug war" before "help[ing] to perpetrate the drug epidemic here in the US."
The chief problem prosecutors here face in handling Guzman's case will be the necessity of relying on informants and those "stool pigeons," who will undoubtedly testify as a result of deals the prosecutors have made with them to secure testimony.
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Juries — in Brooklyn and everywhere else — find "snitches" to be distasteful and it's a particularly dangerous occupation. Worse yet, Guzman's still-operating billion-dollar drug operation may be poised to stop witnesses from testifying against the much feared El Chapo.
This is why the case is so important: The United States must send a message to criminals in other nations that if their actions harm the citizens of the United States, the US justice system will find a way to prosecute and incarcerate them. This means prosecutors will have to work hard to build a credible case and protect fearful witnesses, and possibly some jurors.
Prosecutors in Brooklyn would do well to remember the story of Abe Reles, a "stool pigeon" who was held in protective custody at Coney Island's Half Moon Hotel under the constant guard of six New York police detectives while waiting to testify in 1941's notorious "Murder Incorporated" trial. Sometime during the night before his testimony, Reles "fell" out the window of the Half Moon, and newspapers would later describe him as "The Canary Who Could Sing, But Couldn't Fly."
Given the extensive nature of the charges against Guzman, prosecutors already have a cage full of canaries ready to sing to a Brooklyn jury. One suggestion regarding their care. Though the Half Moon Hotel was demolished long ago, the lesson of Abe Reles lives on: Protect your witnesses with vigilance, for the streets of Brooklyn are tough and not all canaries can fly.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the orientation of the Metropolitan Correctional Center with respect to the state and federal courthouse and to the East River. The courthouses are north and west of the correctional center; the East River is southeast.