Patron saint of drug dealers looms over El Chapo trial

CHICAGO, Illinois -- The form that will be filled out by prospective jurors in El Chapo's upcoming federal trial includes a question about Mexico's version of Robin Hood.

"Are you familiar with Jesus Malverde?" is question number 57. "Yes, no; please explain."

Malverde is the patron saint of the drug cartels and traffickers. According to Mexican folklore, the so-called "narco-saint" is a Robin Hood figure who stole from the rich and gave to the poor.

The inclusion of a question about Malverde for jurors in the prosecution of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman may indicate that authorities believe the drug lord will attempt to portray himself as a social do-gooder, despite the violent origin of his philanthropy.

A jury pool of as many as 1,000 people are expected to be called to court in Brooklyn, New York for the El Chapo trial, now scheduled for September.

The newly-filed, 36-page jury questionnaire includes many of the standard questions about personal history, media habits and prior knowledge of the case, attorneys or the judge.

But the question of Jesus Malverde stands out as a symbol of just how curious El Chapo's case is. The kingpin's defense attorneys are expected to cast him as a large financial backer of community programs in Sinaloa, the state in Mexico that is also the namesake of the cartel he ran with an iron fist for decades.

It isn't even known whether Malverde was an actual person, but he has a shrine in Sinaloa and numerous chapels in his name in Mexico and Colombia. In many cases law enforcement on both sides of the border assume that Malverde images are an indicator of involvement with drug cartels.

The popularity of the "generous bandit" is seen in statues, trinkets and other icons sold throughout the region, and frequently found in drug dealer's vehicles and homes to bring good luck and, perhaps, ward off law enforcement. Some of them even morph El Chapo's face onto Malverde's clothing, as if the two are one.

In 2015 Homeland Security agents showed the I-Team a Jesus Malverde statue among other drug world novelties found in a raid on a metro Chicago drug stash house.

U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan has said that potential jurors would arrive in court in late July and early August to receive the questionnaires.

The large size of the pool reflects an expected difficulty of choosing jurors to weigh the fate of Guzman. Typical cases involve much smaller jury pools.

The jury questionnaire also outlines how long the proceeding will take.

"This trial is expected to begin on September 5, 2018, and last approximately twelve weeks," the newly-filed document states. "Court sessions will last from approximately 9:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday. There are breaks in the morning and afternoon and a one-hour break for lunch. There will be a break from trial for the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as for Thanksgiving weekend."

Guzman is accused of running a massive cocaine, heroin and meth trafficking operation, that spawned a decade-long drug war in Mexico during which more than 100,000 people have been killed.

The jurors names will be kept secret after prosecutors convinced the judge that their safety might be at risk. Two key witnesses in the case against El Chapo will be from Chicago, where the drug lord is also under indictment. Pedro and Margarito Flores secretly recorded supposedly private conversations with El Chapo, who apparently didn't realize the twins from Little Village had started working with U.S. authorities.
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