International drug lords sometimes kill people who plan to take the witness stand against them. It has happened so often in Mexico, for example, that some have described the country’s witness protection program as a witness detection program, or a hit list.
As the authorities in New York prepare for the trial next month of the world’s most famous drug lord — Joaquín Guzmán Loera, who is best known as El Chapo — they have taken extraordinary steps to keep those who will testify from getting killed. Mr. Guzmán’s lawyers say those strict protective orders have made mounting a strong defense more challenging.
Here are few of the ways the prosecution has kept the witnesses, and issues at the trial that concern them, under a veil of secrecy, and why:
From the moment Mr. Guzmán was extradited to Brooklyn from Mexico last year, prosecutors have argued that he presents an “extreme danger” to the numerous former allies, rivals and underlings who will ultimately testify against him.
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The government has repeatedly refused to identify the witnesses in any public papers, saying that if it does, the Sinaloa drug cartel, which Mr. Guzmán ran for 20 years, could easily seek revenge.
Late last month, for example, when the government provided basic information on the witnesses to Mr. Guzmán’s lawyers, it did so in a 100-page memo, almost half of which was blacked out by redactions. Secrecy has so suffused the case that when the defense responded to the memo three days later, asking to learn more about the witnesses, the document was filed under seal.
The chief complaint by Mr. Guzmán’s lawyer, A. Eduardo Balarezo, is that the government is planning to withhold the witnesses’ identities until the eve of trial. He has argued that doing so will hinder his ability to investigate their claims and devise a defense against them.
Some of the government’s witnesses are already in jail and are being held in what are known as protective custody units “in light of the great risk to their lives,” according to court papers. Others are in the witness protection program in undisclosed locations and have been given new identities. Under the program’s rules, the papers say, those individuals have been told “to cut off all ties with family and friends in order to maintain the highest levels of protection.”
Prosecutors have also had concerns about safety of the jury in the case. Earlier this year, they persuaded a federal judge, Brian M. Cogan, to allow the jurors to serve anonymously.
Judge Cogan decided to select the jurors in a rare closed session conducted in his private chambers.
Strict protective orders of witnesses are necessary because Mr. Guzmán has a history of killing and kidnapping those who have dared to speak against him, prosecutors said. It has been difficult, however, to verify the government’s allegations because, as with so many aspects of the case, they were made in documents filed under seal.
In October 2016, Vicente Bermúdez Zacarías, a Mexican judge who played in a role in Mr. Guzmán’s extradition battle, went for a jog in his hometown, Metepec, when a man shot him in the head.
In 2009, prosecutors say, the father of two men from Chicago who were cooperating against Mr. Guzmán with American authorities was captured and murdered when he was in Mexico.
In the Brooklyn case, Mr. Guzmán has been accused of ordering the deaths of thousands as he ran the cartel. That is on top of charges that he smuggled more than 200 tons of cocaine into the United States.
Before his extradition, Mr. Guzmán also escaped two times from prisons in Mexico in a pair of daring jailbreaks.
Despite all this, Mr. Guzmán’s lawyers have dismissed the notion that he presents a threat to anyone given that he has spent the past two years in what is called 10 South, the maximum-security wing of the Metropolitan Correctional Center, New York City’s most impenetrable jail.
There he has been under lock and key, except for an hour a day. He is permitted visits only from his lawyers and his 7-year-old daughters. Every month, Mr. Guzmán is allowed two 15-minutes phone calls with his mother and his sister, to which the government is listening. Other than that, he is “completely isolated from the world outside of his dismal cell,” wrote Mr. Balarezo last month.
Considering those “extremely restrictive conditions,” Mr. Balarezo has claimed it is impossible for Mr. Guzmán to get word out to his associates to knock off any witnesses.
“In fact,” he recently wrote, “unless the government is suggesting that the defense team will disseminate hit orders from Mr. Guzmán, there is no realistic way for him to do anything” to the witnesses at all.