Chicago and Brooklyn, New York are leading contenders to host the first U.S. trial of drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera if he is extradited from Mexico, say former U.S. law enforcement officials, as several jurisdictions vie for what would be one of the most high profile U.S. criminal trials in years.
The trial venue, which will ultimately be decided by the U.S. attorney general, currently Loretta Lynch, is important because it will determine the specific charges that Guzman faces and the strength of the case against the world’s top drug lord.
Mexico recaptured Guzman in a pre-dawn shootout on Friday, and Mexican officials have indicated they are willing to comply with a U.S. request for his extradition.
Guzman, who is blamed for thousands of deaths in Mexico and the United States from addiction and gang warfare, is facing open federal indictments in seven U.S. jurisdictions on charges ranging from money laundering to drug trafficking, kidnapping and murder.
In addition to Chicago and both Manhattan and Brooklyn in New York, Guzman faces indictments in San Diego, Miami, New Hampshire and El Paso, Texas.
“It will boil down to which jurisdiction has the best case and the best evidence when he finally crosses the border,” said Theresa Van Vliet, a former chief of narcotics and senior litigation counsel at the Justice Department.
Officials at the Brooklyn and Chicago U.S. Attorney’s offices did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The Manhattan Attorney’s office declined to comment.
Chicago, which in 2013 dubbed Guzman its first Public Enemy No.1 since Al Capone, has a sweeping 2009 indictment against him, including several counts of conspiring to smuggle and distribute drugs, as well as money laundering charge.
Prosecutors there have secured the cooperation of two strong witnesses, twin brothers Pedro and Margarito Flores, convicted drug traffickers who secretly taped Guzman.
“It will be a fight between each jurisdiction but logic would say that Chicago is the way to go,” said former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Robert Mazur, who spent five years undercover infiltrating the criminal hierarchy of Colombia’s drug cartels and is now president of a Florida private investigations agency.
Mexico could extradite Guzman by mid-year, sources familiar with the situation said. However, the timing will likely depend on any injunctions filed by Guzman´s lawyers, meaning that a U.S. trial could still be a year or more away.
In Brooklyn, El Paso and San Diego, Guzman is charged with participating in a continuing criminal enterprise under a federal law specifically targeting drug traffickers. Prosecutors there are alleging scores of violations in support of the enterprise, including violent crimes like kidnapping and murder. In some of the other jurisdictions, the charges are more narrowly focused on the import and distribution of narcotics.
The Brooklyn-based U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, has a track record of trying high profile criminals and could be helped by its proximity to Washington D.C., legal sources said.
Lynch was formerly U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn, where she oversaw the case for several years, including filing a superseding indictment to a 2009 case against Guzman.
Jurisdictions with more recent indictments against Guzman are likely to have a stronger case for hosting the trial, as key witnesses and evidence may no longer be as readily available in older ones, according to Van Vliet.
San Diego has the oldest open case against Guzman, dating back to 1995. The most recent cases were filed in Manhattan and El Paso, Texas, both in 2012.
Van Vliet said Guzman could face a series of prosecutions rather than just one trial. Consolidating all the various indictments into one case is unlikely, she said, since differences among the charges would create avenues of attack for the defense.