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Man linked to 'El Chapo' goes on trial in high-security drug case

When jurors in the Herman Aguirre trial arrive in court each day, they come cloaked in secrecy.

Only the judge and lawyers know their names and where they live.

And whenever they leave, court security officers escort them from the building.

These extraordinary security measures – which also follow reported threats against witnesses – are because of Aguirre's alleged ties to Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel, a drug trafficking organization considered one of the most powerful and violent in the world.

Prosecutors claim the cartel was led by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the accused drug kingpin standing trial amidst even tighter security in New York City.

Aguirre's trial is unfolding in Buffalo federal court where he and another man, Troy R. Gillon, are accused of taking part in what one prosecutor called a drug ring, "the likes of which Western New York has never seen."

"We have the cooperating witnesses, currency and kilos to prove it," Assistant U.S. Attorney Meghan A. Tokash told a jury in opening statements Wednesday.

Tokash, who is prosecuting the case with Michael P. Felicetta, said the large-scale nature of the drug trafficking first became apparent when the Drug Enforcement Administration and local police seized 32 kilograms of heroin, fentanyl and cocaine during a South Buffalo bust in early 2015.

She also claims a prosecution witness, a drug dealer involved in conspiracy, will testify that 29 pallets – each one with 50 kilograms of cocaine and heroin – arrived here during one nine-month period. She estimated the total at nearly 1,500 kilos, or 3,300 pounds.

Herman Aguirre.

The trial before U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. Vilardo will center around allegations that Aguirre and Jose Ruben Gil, a former Mexican mayor, led a criminal organization that trafficked cocaine, heroin and fentanyl from the Sinaloa Cartel.

Prosecutors say the drugs were shipped to California and then, depending on the size of the cargo, transported by mail or truck to areas in the east, including Western New York.

In some cases, the drugs were shipped in containers labeled "sea cucumbers," a bottom-dwelling ocean scavenger and popular Japanese delicacy.

Tokash said Aguirre, who is also charged with money laundering, passed himself off as a food broker while depositing $19 million in drug proceeds in local banks.

"The evidence will show that it was a good try because sea cucumbers are an expensive commodity," she told the jury, "but clearly these Californians didn't understand that Buffalo is a hot dog and chicken wing kind of town."

Using ‘sea cucumbers’ as cover, El Chapo cartel shipped tons of drugs to Buffalo, feds claim

Overall, the government estimates the value of drugs shipped here at $37 million.

Indicted with 15 others, Aguirre and Gil were accused of being leaders of the drug ring, and prosecutors said both men had ties to the cartel. They also claim Guzman, aka "El Chapo," was among those who oversaw the drug shipments here.

Gil, who at the time of his arrest was identified as the mayor of Izúcar de Matamoros in Puebla, Mexico, pleaded guilty last month and, according to defense lawyers, will be the government's star witness.

"We all know manipulators, people who manipulate situations and people," Matthew Lembke, Aguirre's defense lawyer, said of Gil. "Chief among those manipulators is a master."

Lembke said Gil, while serving a previous prison sentence, claimed to have kidney disease and won an early release from the court, only to turn around and start selling drugs again.

In the days leading up to the trial, Lembke also questioned the role of the Sinaloa Cartel in the case and suggested prosecutors were trying to "inflame the jurors' passions, pander to their fears and distract them."

Troy Gillon.

Jason L. Schmidt, Gillon's lawyer, said the cartel is not the only large organization under scrutiny in this case and suggested the government is exploiting cooperating witnesses and their motivation to tell investigators what they want to hear in order to win better deals for themselves.

"This is an organization that can change your life," Schmidt told the jury. "And I'm not talking about the drug cartel. I'm talking about the United States of America."

In ordering enhanced security for the trial, Vilardo pointed to the Sinaloa Cartel and several alleged threats against government witnesses.

Prosecutors said the daughter of one witness was assaulted on Allen Street last month by attackers who told her repeatedly that her mother was a "snitch."

Another witness, according to the government, was approached in a Buffalo grocery store by a man who said she "would be dead" if she testified at the trial.

The case against Aguirre and Gillon is expected to last at least four weeks and include at least a dozen "protected" witnesses, some of them co-defendants who pleaded guilty and agreed to testify.

Aguirre's trial is taking place while Guzman stands trial in New York City, where security is even more intense.

Tuesday morning, the Brooklyn Bridge was temporary closed, causing a traffic snag, while law enforcement officials transported Guzman from his jail cell in Manhattan to the federal courthouse in Brooklyn.

Until now, Guzman had been held in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan, considered one of the most secure in the country.

Guzman has escaped twice in the past from maximum security prisons in Mexico.

The Aguirre and Gillon trial resumes Thursday.

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