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Opening Statements Begin In 'El Chapo' Trial

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

One of the most notorious drug kingpins in the world is on trial in a federal courthouse in Brooklyn. Opening statements began today in the case against Joaquin Guzman, better known as El Chapo. El Chapo has pleaded not guilty to charges that could send him to prison for life. The counts range from drug and weapons conspiracy to money laundering.

We're joined now by someone who was in the courtroom today, Keegan Hamilton, host of Vice's podcast "Chapo." Welcome.

KEEGAN HAMILTON: Thank you for having me. I'm here in front of the courthouse.

CHANG: So we know this is not a typical trial because, for one thing, U.S. marshals are escorting jurors to and from the courthouse each day. What did it feel like to be in the courtroom today?

HAMILTON: It was a pretty interesting day. Two of the jurors actually dropped out this morning, one of them because they said they were afraid to participate in the trial.

CHANG: Wow.

HAMILTON: So most of the morning was spent trying to find two replacements to fill their slots. And opening statements didn't start until later in the afternoon. And some of the jurors appeared a little uncomfortable, and it's hard not to be with the level of security that's inside the courtroom and all over the courthouse and around the perimeter of the courthouse.

CHANG: Now, El Chapo has this really flamboyant history. He's become this larger-than-life character. Have new details about his story come out at this trial so far, about how he allegedly ran this multibillion-dollar drug ring?

HAMILTON: So in the prosecution's opening statement - they went first this afternoon - they sort of outlined in broad strokes exactly what you just mentioned, this figure of El Chapo who, you know, ran his multibillion-dollar drug empire and was personally responsible, they allege, for multiple murders.

What was new is we heard for the first time today what the defense plans to say in response to that. And essentially their takeaway is that El Chapo's alleged partner in the Sinaloa Cartel, El Mayo Zambada, is the real leader of the cartel and had put the spotlight on Chapo to take away from him.

El Mayo, of course, is still free in Mexico, has never been captured. And some of his - his sons are expected to be corroborating witnesses against Chapo.

CHANG: So that seems to be the defense's main strategy is, it was mostly these other guys. It wasn't El Chapo.

HAMILTON: It was - it was this one other guy, who is his partner saying that, we can make Chapo famous and put the spotlight on him while I take care of my business without attracting the attention.

The other element that the defense played up today, which was kind of expected, was that all of the corroborating witnesses who are expected to testify against El Chapo can't be believed simply because they're criminals who are cooperating in exchange for leniency from the government.

CHANG: How much evidence does it feel like the prosecution has on El Chapo? I mean, do you have a sense that we are going to be expecting a really strong case being put forward in the coming weeks?

HAMILTON: So in addition to those corroborating witnesses - there's at least 16 of them that we know about. We don't know their names exactly yet. But the government also today referenced text messages they have of Chapo, audio recordings, some video recordings, including the video that he made for Sean Penn in his interview with Rolling Stone...

CHANG: Right.

HAMILTON: ...Where he essentially discusses being a drug trafficker. So it seems that they have a wealth of evidence to pull from. And it's unclear whether or not the jurors are going to buy that it was all some other guy making Chapo look like the kingpin.

CHANG: That's Keegan Hamilton, the host of the podcast "Chapo." Thank you very much for joining us today.

HAMILTON: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE SONG, "WANT SOMETHING DONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.