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As 'El Chapo' Trial Begins, Keeping Jurors Safe Is Top Priority

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – Security is extremely tight at Brooklyn Federal Court as jury selection began Monday in the trial of accused Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

The judge wants to keep the jury anonymous, but CBS2 has already learned the pool includes a self-described professional Michael Jackson impersonator.

CBS2's Alice Gainer reports that the safety of the jurors and the notorious defendant are a top priority for authorities.

So how do you transport a high profile prisoner who's escaped jail twice in Mexico?

Police believe using a highly secure motorcade that includes shutting down parts of the Brooklyn Bridge is the answer.

(credit: CBS2)

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman was brought to Brooklyn Federal Court Monday from a Manhattan correction facility. Outside, heavily armed officers and plain-clothed counter surveillance teams provide protection.

The NYPD and U.S. Marshals have been working together for months on plans to secure the courthouse.

"The partnership in New York is unique, second to none. Partnership with the NYPD, the federal partners, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration," John Cuff, a retired chief in the U.S. Marshal Service said.

"Any major high-threat trial, any high-value target - whether it be organized crime, terrorism, drug traffickers - New York is the premiere place to have these high security trials."

Extra security has been extended to jurors as well.

In an order issued back in February, U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan said that the jurors will remain anonymous and partially sequestered.

Their names, addresses, and place of employment will be kept confidential. They will also be transported to and from the courthouse by armed federal marshals.

Guzman's lawyers fought an anonymous jury.

Criminal defense attorney Gerald Lefcourt - who does not represent Guzman - says he understands the defense's concerns.

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman
Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman (Credit: CBS2)

"The jurors will think that the defendant must be guilty of something and must be dangerous," Lefcourt argued.

The judge said, given Guzman's history of violence, the jury needs protection.

Guzman has pleaded not guilty to the charges that his cartel smuggled tons of cocaine and other drugs, laundered billions of dollars, and oversaw a ruthless campaign of murders and kidnappings.

Though it sounds rare, an anonymous jury is not that unusual.

"The United States Marshal Service is very used to these kinds of proceedings. There have been many with anonymized jurors and the security is intense," Lefcourt explained.

Potential jurors were questioned about their views on the legalization of marijuana, their fluency in Spanish, and how much they knew about Guzman on Monday.

Guzman was extradited to the U.S. from Mexico and New York is one of several jurisdictions where he's been charged.

He faces life in prison if convicted. Opening statements are set for Nov. 13.

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