Four days a week for at least the next three months, armed guards will escort a dozen New Yorkers, who wake up at the crack of dawn, to the federal courthouse in Brooklyn. They’re the jurors charged with deciding whether Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán will spend the rest of his life in prison, and their names are being kept secret over concerns they could be threatened or killed by the Sinaloa cartel.
Juror 73 was nearly one of those people. An Asian-American woman in her 50s who works in the art business, she was among the last group of prospective jurors interviewed by Judge Brian Cogan, federal prosecutors, and El Chapo’s defense team. And she remembers her adrenaline pumping while she sat in the courtroom a few seats away from El Chapo.
“My heart was beating so hard and so fast when I was sitting there,” she recalled. “Just the fact I was so close to El Chapo, that made me very nervous.”
Despite her trepidation, Juror 73 was a finalist to sit on the jury. She was able to speak to VICE News because she was ultimately not picked to serve, but she requested anonymity because she doesn’t want to be “associated with El Chapo for the rest of my life, basically,” she said. The members of the actual empaneled jury — 7 women and 5 men, plus 6 alternates — are under strict orders not to speak with anyone about the case, especially the news media.
Juror 73 is the first prospective El Chapo juror to talk publicly about the selection process. The part that unfolded in open court included many bizarre moments, including a Michael Jackson impersonator and a man who asked for El Chapo’s autograph. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Juror 73 said other members of the jury pool were actively plotting ways to avoid serving on the case. She said several people complained about the U.S. government wasting resources to put El Chapo on trial. And she said that, despite heavy security at the courthouse, a “random guy” was able to barge into a room where the jurors were gathered.
"Just the fact I was so close to El Chapo, that made me very nervous."
Under orders from the judge, only five reporters were allowed inside the courtroom during the jury selection process. VICE News was among the outlets allowed in, and several details of Juror 73’s account match what we saw transpire in the courtroom. We were unable to corroborate her descriptions of what happened behind the scenes. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn declined to comment.
Juror 73’s moment in the spotlight didn’t come until November 13, the day the trial was scheduled to start. The entire previous week had been set aside for jury selection, and after three days of interviewing more than 70 people, the judge and attorneys for both sides thought they had finally finished.
But at the last minute, a young woman who had been picked tearfully approached the judge and said she was terrified. Another man, a cab driver, said he couldn’t afford to go without pay for the entire trial. Two replacements were needed. The court had prepared for dropouts, and a group of prospective El Chapo jurors — including Juror 73 — were waiting on standby.
“There were people there that were very adamant about not wanting to be on this case,” Juror 73 recalled. “People were saying, ‘How dare the government waste money having the trial here in the U.S.’ It was basically, ‘He’s Mexican and he was extradited and he should have been tried in Mexico, not here.’ That was a common thread, that it was such a waste of money — the police, the protection that needed to be set up for him.”
The security at the courthouse has been hard to miss since the start of the trial. In addition to armed U.S. Marshals and other security guards patrolling the courtroom during jury selection, Homeland Security agents with assault rifles have been stationed outside the building with bomb-sniffing dogs. Despite the precautions, Juror 73 said there was an awkward moment when a man she described as “really bizarre” entered the room where everyone was gathered and started asking how to join the jury pool.
“He asked one of the guys in the back, ‘I want to be on this jury. Can I be on this jury?’” she recalled. “I don’t know how he got in. I thought maybe he was a reporter. He knew first of all that we were all there for that. And he kept saying ‘How does one get on this jury? I want to serve.’ We all were kind of looking at each like ‘He’s crazy.’ We’re here here because we were summoned to be here and he’s volunteering.”
The U.S. Marshals Service, which handles courthouse security, declined to comment on the alleged incident and on security issues in general around El Chapo’s trial.
“The U.S. Marshals are responsible for the protection of the federal judicial process, and we take that responsibility very seriously,” a U.S Marshals spokesperson said in a statement. “While we do not discuss our specific security measures, we continuously review the security measures in place and take appropriate steps to provide additional protection when it is warranted.”
Inside the courtroom, the mood was turning desperate. One juror after another kept coming up with excuses about why they couldn’t serve. Some were deathly afraid of the defendant. Others couldn’t afford not to work during the trial. One had a surgery already scheduled. Another had booked a nonrefundable vacation. At one point, 11 prospective jurors in a row were excused for various reasons.
Juror 73 had already been carefully screened. The court had sent a 43-page questionnaire out to 1,000 people across Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and Long Island, and Juror 73 filled out the entire document. The judge had marked her file with color-coded stickers on pages where he wanted follow-up information.
Jury 73 disclosed on the questionnaire that she had a close family member who struggled with cocaine addiction. When the judge asked whether that would cause any issues for her to serve on a drug case, she replied that it wouldn’t be a problem. “Even though it’s drug-related, there’s nothing similar about it,” she said from her seat at the table in the courtroom.
Juror 73 had planned to say that she was too afraid for her safety to serve on the jury, but once the questions started coming, everything felt like a blur. Finally, when the judge asked about her familiarity with the case, she spoke up about being scared.
“It’s just based on what I know about drug cartels,” she said. “I’ve some movies and shows. It’s something I witnessed — not firsthand but I’ve heard about it and it’s scary.”
The judge pressed her on whether she could set aside her biases and judge the case based solely on the evidence. She responded with a half-hearted, “I’ll do my best.
El Chapo attorney Jeffrey Lichtman objected to her being kept as a candidate for the jury and remarked to the judge that she “sure seems skittish.” Judge Cogan overruled him, however, saying she didn’t necessarily seem biased against El Chapo.
Juror 73 said she actually knew very little about El Chapo at the time, and she has mixed feelings about him now that she’s heard more about his backstory
“I know he’s a drug lord, but the reason he got into what he got into is because of necessity,” she said. “They come from nothing, and they had to make a living, and where he’s from, I guess that was it. And so it’s hard. It’s all human. We’re all trying to live our lives and do the best we can. I kind of felt some sympathy toward him.”
Had she been asked, Juror 73 said she would have served. But she still felt relieved when she learned that she’d been excused. Of course, not everyone was so lucky. She recalled how a young Spanish-speaking woman who was chosen instead of her was even more nervous.
“She just said if she gets picked,” Juror 73 recalled, “she wouldn’t be able to go back to Mexico.”
Cover image: In this Jan. 8, 2016 file photo, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is made to face the press as he is escorted to a helicopter in handcuffs by Mexican soldiers and marines at a federal hangar in Mexico City, Mexico. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte, File)