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Vivid Details Revealed As El Chapo Trial Continues


Now to Brooklyn, N.Y., where vivid details of the infamous Sinaloa drug cartel's day-to-day operations have been coming to light in the courtroom. You might remember that Joaquin El Chapo Guzman has been on trial since November 14. He's facing 17 charges, including drug trafficking, money laundering, conspiracy to murder rivals and firearms violations to name just a few. Witnesses have been providing a look into one of the world's largest drug-trafficking organizations. The trial took a break for the Christmas and New Year's holidays but started up again this week and jumped right back in with insider testimony from a so-called cartel prince.

Alan Feuer has been covering the trial for The New York Times, where he reports on courts and criminal justice. And he's with us now. Alan Feuer, thanks so much for talking to us.

ALAN FEUER: My pleasure.

MARTIN: So just to backtrack a little bit for people who have not been following this story, how much of the operations of this kind of infamous drug cartel are coming to light in this trial?

FEUER: Everything is coming out, Michel. This is really the first time that we've seen what the American government knows about the full operations of the Sinaloa drug cartel. And this is all coming out not just through a vast amount of documents and photographs and recorded phone calls and drug ledgers, but by an incredible cast of witnesses from within the cartel, people who worked for many years with Chapo Guzman.

MARTIN: And this week, the trial resumed with what had to have been just a very explosive witness. It was Vicente Zambada Niebla. You called him a cartel prince in your report because he's the son of El Chapo's former partner in the cartel. What are some of the things that we learned from his testimony?

FEUER: I mean, we learned everything from the fact that his father, Mayo Zambada, Chapo's partner, regularly had a monthly bribery budget of $1 million - I'll say it again, that's monthly - to pay off corrupt officials in Mexico. We learned how the cartel used submarines to smuggle drugs up from Colombia to Mexico. We learned that they then crossed those drugs into the United States in everything from trains with secret compartments to tractor trailers where the drugs were stuffed in between pallets of frozen meat. He took the jury through virtually every aspect not only of the cartel's operations but even down to the level of its kind of petty politics and personal vendettas.

MARTIN: You know, one of the things I was struck by in your report was how you described Zambada as smirking at Guzman and having an air of, quote, "bravura" on the witness stand. And the reason I'm struck by that is I think many people will remember that Guzman has previously escaped prison a number of times, the fact that this cartel is known for being, I don't know how else to put it, murderous. What do you make of his - is it eagerness to testify or his confidence in testifying? I was just wondering what you make of it.

FEUER: It was a remarkable moment. He got onto the witness stand, and within seconds of sitting down, he looked over at Chapo. And he kind of raised his head, put a big smile on his face and nodded kind of in this like cocky gesture that said partly hello old friend to, you know, like, got you now. Hard to know. But to your point, yes, I mean, Chapo did escape twice from prison in Mexico, famously once in a laundry cart, once through a tunnel that his associates dug literally into the shower of his cell in prison. And so there's been a lot of concern on the part of the authorities here in New York to prevent that from happening again.

MARTIN: You've been covering courts of criminal justice for 20 years. Just as briefly as you can, how would you compare this to other trials that you've covered?

FEUER: Well, I mean, this one is more than most a really, truly immersive experience. Part of that is just the logistics involved because of the intense security and because of the number of reporters who are covering the trial. We all have to get there by 6:30 in the morning to be assured of a seat inside of the courtroom.

It's a very challenging atmosphere in which to work. I mean, there's a team of drug-sniffing dogs. There are police snipers deployed around the courthouse. And there's even - I have never seen this one before - there's a federal marshal with some sort of like radiation sensor who goes through the floor - not just the courtroom itself, but the entire floor - making sure there's no radiological devices.

MARTIN: That's remarkable. So before we let you go, what do you expect in the next days and weeks? How much longer do you expect this to go on?

FEUER: Well, it's definitely going to go for, I would guess, at least another month. And what we can expect is more sort of ghosts from El Chapo's past to appear in the courtroom and testify against him.

MARTIN: That's Alan Feuer. He covers courts and criminal justice for The New York Times. He's been covering the trial of Joaquin El Chapo Guzman. Alan, thanks so much for talking to us.

FEUER: Oh, well, it's a pleasure to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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