Longtime ex-FBI undercover Mike McGowan knows the adrenaline rush that comes with pursuing Mexican drug lord Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman.
The retired federal agent spent three years cozying up to the notorious narco-terrorist and his underlings, posing as an amoral Italian mob boss whose outlandish wardrobe included a purple velour bathrobe.
“That was kind of my World Series and Super Bowl combined, basically,” McGowan told the Daily News last week. “Literally, my juices just started flowing at the mention of his name. He had my full attention.”
Starting Monday, Brooklyn federal prosecutors will share the feeling. Guzman, 61, is due in court as jury selection begins — the first of many long-awaited days of reckoning for the accused billionaire CEO of the cutthroat, international drug-peddling organization known as the Sinaloa Cartel. The trial is expected to last as long as four months.
“In some ways, this case is unprecedented,” said Brooklyn Federal Judge Brian M. Cogan. “The amount of public attention has been extraordinary.”
Authorities said 1,000 jury summonses were mailed out, with 922 prospective jurors filling out the forms. The U.S. Marshals declined to discuss any specific security plans for the slippery El Chapo, who famously escaped from a pair of Mexican prisons.
“We continuously review the security measures in place and take appropriate steps to provide additional protection when it is warranted,” said Supervisory Deputy U.S. Marshal Darrel King.
McGowan, who never met El Chapo, is in the list of potential witnesses in the wildly anticipated prosecution. But much of his story is already public: McGowan recounted his interactions with the drug kingpin’s operation in the memoir “Ghost: My Thirty Years as an Undercover FBI Agent.”
Once a jury is seated, opening arguments were set for Nov. 13, after Cogan rejected defense motions to delay the prosecution. El Chapo’s lawyers were outraged when the government announced 17 new alleged murder conspiracy victims in early October.
“It is almost as if the government believes that due to the breadth of their allegations against Mr. Guzman, he is entitled to diminished due process and only an illusory semblance of effective assistance of counsel,” the defense wrote in an Oct. 27 court filing.
The feared illegal businessman pleaded innocent to 17 counts of drug trafficking, murder conspiracy and money laundering after his extradition to Brooklyn in January 2017. The man described by U.S. authorities as “the most notorious drug trafficker in the world” spent the last 22 months in solitary confinement waiting for his taste of American justice.
McGowan joined “Operation Dark Water’ in 2009, a three-year FBI sting leveraging a drug trafficker/informant to get inside the infamous cartel. The Massachusetts Irishman assumed the guise of “El Viejo,” an old-school Italian mobster with an interest in bringing Guzman’s cocaine to a European audience.
For his Feb. 24, 2010, getting-to-know-you meeting with El Chapo’s first cousin, El Viejo appeared with his hair slicked straight back — and wore nothing more than the garish purple robe as they sat inside an opulent oceanfront Florida condo. Within weeks, there was an offer for the Italian and his organization to launder $500 million in cartel money.
While McGowan can’t discuss any direct evidence in the case, the book details how the large-scale undercover operation reached a point when the agent even exchanged handwritten messages with Guzman.
McGowan, in a note scrawled on a 100-euro note, promised El Chapo safe haven in Europe if the feds ever caught him in their crosshairs. El Chapo was told this was part of an old Italian crime tradition where the recipient tears the bill in half, saves the original message, and returns the other half with his own thoughts.
Incredibly, El Chapo did just that.
“My friend, thank you for the support you are offering me, to receive me, and I am not discounting the invitation,” read the response. “… My friend, a big embrace.”
The operation wound up with 346 kilos of cartel cocaine seized and four convictions; the superstitious McGowan wore a set of FBI cuff links when the suspects were arrested in August 2012. But there was no arrest of Guzman: The elusive El Chapo was finally busted In January 2016 to face charges inside an American courtroom. He was extradited a year later.
Guzman broke out of prison for the second time in July 2015, setting off a global manhunt where actor Sean Penn tracked him down for a Rolling Stone interview shortly before authorities located him in Los Mochis, Mexico. Five of Guzman’s security team were gunned down before El Chapo was back in custody.
McGowan, unless he’s called as a prosecution witness, has no intention of traveling to Brooklyn for a look at his former prey.