Reputed drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman isn’t happy with jail conditions in America, his lawyers said Friday.
Guzman wore dark blue prison garb during a status conference in federal court in Brooklyn, New York, where public defenders argued that their client’s 23 hours under lock-down each day, with limited visits, kept him from selecting a private attorney.
“The current restrictions are excessive,” one attorney, Michelle Gelernt of the Federal Defenders of New York, told reporters after the hearing.
Guzman’s wife, Emma Coronel, who has not been permitted to visit him at a federal detention center in Manhattan, attended the hearing but did not comment outside court.
“It has been very difficult,” Gelernt said of Coronel. “This is the first time she’s seen him since he was brought to the United States.”
Guzman is charged with running a massive drug smuggling operation that laundered more than $14 billion. He faces other charges that include operation of a continuing criminal enterprise, conspiring to murder rivals and firearms violations.
The charges carry a minimum sentence of life in prison, according to US Attorney Robert Capers of the Eastern District of New York. Mexico’s foreign ministry handed Guzman over to the US prosecutors in January after it said it had received assurances that if convicted, Guzman would not receive the death penalty. Mexico opposes capital punishment.
During the 40-minute hearing, federal prosecutors argued that Guzman had financial means to afford lawyers and didn’t need a public defender. They also said the prior representation by the federal defenders of five potential witnesses created a conflict.
Guzman’s lawyers said they would provide the court with a financial affidavit.
“We think it’s ridiculous that the government expects Mr. Guzman to choose a counsel when he’s locked up 23 hours a day” with limited visitation rights, defense attorney Michael Schneider told reporters.
“If they want him to have access to hire a lawyer, we believe he needs to be able to meet with his family or at least confer with his family,” Schneider said.
Gelernt also expressed concern about the legality of Guzman’s extradition from Mexico, saying that a Mexican government document agreeing to allow Guzman to be charged in Brooklyn had not been turned over to defense lawyers.
Guzman’s next court appearance will be in May.
A US judge initially ruled that Guzman, 59, would appear in court by video, but the order was changed after his attorneys asked the court to reconsider. Guzman’s attorneys argued their client’s absence in court would be prejudicial, creating the appearance that he is too dangerous to appear at the hearing.
Guzman has been detained at a federal detention center in Manhattan since his extradition.
A game of cat-and-mouse
A day after his extradition, the master of escape, “El Chapo” pleaded not guilty in the New York federal court.
The indictment alleges that from 1989 to 2014 Guzman led a criminal enterprise responsible for importing and distributing massive amounts of narcotics and conspiring to murder rivals who posed a threat, Capers said.
For years, the notorious cartel leader played a game of cat-and-mouse with the law.
In January 2001, he escaped from a prison in Jalisco in a laundry cart. Guzman was apprehended in February 2014. He escaped again in July 2015 from the maximum-security Altiplano federal prison near Toluca, Mexico, by crawling through an opening in the shower area of his cell block leading to a mile-long tunnel. He was later captured in January 2016.
“El Chapo” is the noted leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, which the US Justice Department describes as “one of the world’s most prolific, violent and powerful drug cartels,” moving billions and billions of dollars in marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.
Trafficking these drugs into the United States from Mexico is a business worth $19 billion to $20 billion annually, according to a Department of Homeland Security report.