Marco Antonio Paredes-Machado insists he was never a major player in the Sinaloa Cartel. Prior to his capture in 2011, according to court records, he was merely a “plaza boss,” akin to middle management, a few rungs below the infamous Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in Mexico’s most powerful drug trafficking organization.
But now, more than a decade later, the 58-year-old Paredes-Machado is locked up alongside El Chapo in America’s highest-security federal prison, ADX Florence in Colorado, home to a who’s who of high-profile terrorists, spies, and gang leaders from across the federal prison system.
Exactly why Paredes-Machado has ended up in the so-called “Alcatraz of the Rockies” is a matter of dispute. He claims, in a civil lawsuit filed July 7, that U.S. prosecutors are trying to pressure him into cooperating against the Sinaloa Cartel. Being sent to a notoriously tough prison with El Chapo, his former boss—a man with a reputation for ordering coldblooded violence against cartel informants—is an intimidation tactic, Paredes-Machado alleges, and based on false evidence presented against him by prison officials, including the accusation that he has a back tattoo from the terrorist group ISIS. That allegation is especially bizarre, his lawyer says, considering Paredes-Machado doesn't have any tattoos at all.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice declined to comment, citing pending litigation, while the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) said “privacy, safety, and security reasons” prevented discussion of the details of Paredes-Machado’s case. The BOP spokesperson said the decision about where to place a prisoner is based on a range of factors, including “the level of security and supervision the inmate requires, any medical or programming needs, separation and security measures to ensure the inmates protection, and other considerations.”
But in a 45-page court document, Paredes-Machado and his attorney make the case that he’s being targeted for refusing to inform on the cartel, held without justification in a “super-maximum” security prison when he was initially cleared for one much less restrictive.
“United States agents, in their quest to dismantle drug trafficking organizations such as the Sinaloa Cartel, have resorted to extrajudicial techniques including torture or ‘enhanced interrogation’ to involuntarily coerce cartel members to inform on their higherups,” the complaint says, alleging Paredes-Machado was subjected to waterboarding by Mexican authorities prior to being handed over to the agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), who wanted him for questioning about his connections to El Chapo and other senior cartel leaders.
Paredes-Machado was held in Mexican custody until his extradition in 2015. He pleaded guilty in 2019 to federal charges in Michigan that he shipped thousands of kilos worth of marijuana and cocaine into the U.S. while running the town of Agua Prieta for the Sinaloa Cartel. The area is across from Douglas, Arizona, where El Chapo built one of his earliest known tunnels for smuggling drugs under the border.
The judge gave Paredes-Machado a 22-year sentence, but with credit for time served his scheduled release date is in 2029, according to a public BOP inmate database. His current location in the system is ADX, inside a fortified compound with two other prisons about a 2-hour drive south of Denver near Florence, a sleepy old mining town in the Rocky Mountains.
THE ISIS BACK TATTOO
ADX currently houses 342 prisoners, including El Chapo, who has been serving a life sentence since 2019. Other high-profile residents include the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and 1991 World Trade Center bombing mastermind Ramzi Ahmed Yousef. Nearly everyone is held in solitary confinement for 22 or 23 hours per day, and El Chapo is among those under extra-strict measures that limit communication with the outside world to lawyers and a handful of close relatives.
Paredes-Machado was initially bound for placement at FCI Safford, a low-security prison in Arizona, but got rerouted on short notice. The move, his lawsuit says, was accomplished “through a bizarre ADX transfer hearing” which happened without a Spanish translator and lasted just four minutes, during which time he was “accused of being a member of the notorious terrorist organization ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.”
The evidence presented was an ADX transfer report that “falsely alleged that Mr. Paredes-Machado had pledged allegiance to ISIS, had an ISIS tattoo on his back, and posed a threat to others, thereby justifying his transfer,” the complaint says.
Paredes-Machado’s lawyer, Adam Frank, declined to comment further when reached by VICE News. He said in the lawsuit that his client has never been involved with any terrorist group and doesn’t even have any tattoos, let alone one that signals affiliation with ISIS.
An excerpt from the transfer paperwork refers at one point to “inmate Spain'' rather than Paredes-Machado, suggesting prison officials may have mixed him up with someone else. The likely suspect is Casey Charles Spain, a 29-year-old from Richmond, Virginia, who the Department of Justice says “obtained a tattoo of the ISIS flag on his back” and was sentenced to prison in 2018 on gun charges after plotting attacks on military bases. The BOP’s inmate locator shows Spain at a high-security prison adjacent to ADX in Florence, Colorado.
The ADX transfer paperwork said Spain had a history of violence within the prison system, while Parades-Machado, according to his lawyer, has a clean record since entering BOP custody.
Prison officials eventually “conceded that Mr. Paredes-Machado was in fact not the ISIS member described in the ADX transfer report,” according to the lawsuit, but he was still transferred nonetheless. The BOP reclassified Paredes-Machado as “notorious,” the complaint says, a designation “reserved for inmates who have demonstrated an inability to function in a less restrictive environment without being a threat to others.”
The real motive, Paredes-Machado claims, was for prosecutors to create “leverage” and squeeze him into giving information about the Sinaloa Cartel, which he feared would lead to a “death sentence” for him and his family.
Still, it appears he was willing to consider talking.
WATERBOARDING IN MEXICO
There is some evidence to suggest Paredes-Machado was slightly more important than the mid-level manager he makes himself out to be in his lawsuit. His original indictment from 2005 says he was “the main Mexican marijuana supplier” of that era, responsible for illegally importing at least 40 tons. His plea agreement says he “invested in shipments of cocaine and had a direct role overseeing the transportation of tonnage quantities in Los Cabos, Mexico.”
He oversaw a team of 20-30 men in Los Cabos who used boats and planes to ferry the cocaine to locations under Sinaloa Cartel control for storage and smuggling across the border. He was involved in collecting “tens of millions of dollars” worth of payments for the cocaine, court documents say, and he had been active in the drug trade since the early 1990s.
By January 2011, Paredes-Machado was under surveillance by the DEA, which suspected him of working closely with the upper echelons of the cartel, perhaps even El Chapo himself.
DEA agents alerted Mexican officials to Paredes-Machado, securing a warrant to have him captured and extradited. When Paredes-Machado took a trip to the Mexico City area with his wife, Rosa Icela Ponce de Paredes, who was scheduled for a doctor’s appointment, Mexican federal agents swooped in outside the clinic to arrest the couple.
Paredes-Machado and his wife claim they were taken to a Mexican federal police building, where they were tortured for several hours. Paredes-Machado says he was strapped to a gurney with a black silk bag over his head and waterboarded seven or eight times. The ordeal is detailed in the recent lawsuit, as well as court filings from his criminal case in 2017.
He recalls one agent threatening: “Si no cooperas tu señora le va llevar a la chingada y ahorita vas a ver como va a gritar,” translated as: “If you don’t cooperate there will be horrible consequences for your woman, and soon you will see how she will scream.”
Paredes-Machado was told his wife was under the same rough interrogation in a separate room. He eventually agreed to give a taped confession, delivering lines he says were rehearsed. His captors slapped him around when he deviated from their script, which called for him to say he was present at a “father of cartel leaders” meeting in the city of Cuernavaca.
Mexican officials did not respond to questions about Paredes-Machado’s allegations, which involved security agencies that were dissolved years ago by the government.
When three DEA agents came to see him, he recalled, only one of them seemed to speak Spanish. The conversation lasted only a few minutes. When they asked about El Chapo and wondered why he was refusing to answer questions, he says he told them “not here” and signaled he would be willing to come to the United States.
There was good reason for Paredes-Machado to be worried about high-level police corruption in Mexico. Court documents say a Mexican federal police official named Ramon Pequeño was the one who alerted the DEA to his capture. Pequeño has since been indicted by federal prosecutors in New York and accused of working on behalf of the Sinaloa Cartel, along with former top security official Genaro Garcia-Luna, who is scheduled for a trial later this year. Pequeño’s location is unknown and he’s believed to be a fugitive in Mexico.
A spokesperson for the DEA said of Paredes-Machado: “We do not comment on issues involved in ongoing litigation.”
CUTTING A DEAL… OR NOT
After Paredes-Machado was extradited, prosecutors tried again to cut a deal. Court records say he met “personally” in 2016 at a federal prison near Detroit with a team from Washington, D.C., including one prosecutor who was later involved in the trial of El Chapo starting in late 2018.
Paredes-Machado’s relationship with El Chapo was “a subject of great interest” during the meeting, one court record says, but apparently nothing came of the talks. In February 2020, Paredes-Machado reached out again and offered to speak, but only about a rival cartel known as La Línea, not his own. He requested to have the meeting somewhere away from the border, not at the low-security Arizona prison where he expected to serve his time.
Paredes-Machado never got his meeting. He was sent to ADX on March 15, 2021.
Whether his stay at the supermax prison is justified or orchestrated as alleged could now be decided in court. But one former federal narcotics prosecutor, Bonnie Klapper, who is now a defense attorney, said the coordinated plot allegation seems improbable but not impossible.
“We had zero input as to where an inmate was sent,” Klapper told VICE News. “If someone was particularly violent or high level, we made sure that information was in the presentence report, which is one of the things that the BOP uses to make its designation decisions. But asking to move someone to ADX–I suppose it is possible, but seems unlikely to me.”
One former ADX prisoner, Ismail Royer, said Paredes-Machado’s story “certainly rings true” based on his experiences in the federal prison system. Royer spent 30 months of a 13-year sentence in ADX after he was convicted of helping people reach a jihadist training camp in Kashmir, and he now works at a nonprofit focused on countering religious extremism.
“Moving prisoners to higher security, or farther away from their families, and so on is a common tactic, either of retaliation or leverage, or on the other hand moving people to more favorable locations is a reward,” Royer said. “It’s possible that there is some non-shady reason they did this. But the correlation of events makes it not crazy to assume causation.”
While some of the prisoners at ADX are serving life sentences like El Chapo, previous reporting by VICE News has documented how others with less serious convictions are released, sometimes directly into the public with little oversight and violent consequences. The extreme solitary confinement at ADX can worsen mental health problems and there are documented cases of self-harm and suicide among the prisoners.
A former ADX warden, Bob Hood, noted that BOP “has not had a terrific track record in protecting ‘high-profile’ offenders lately,” with the deaths of Jeffrey Epstein and former mob boss Whitey Bulger cited as examples. There have also been killings at a high-security prison in Illinois, which have drawn fresh calls for Congressional oversight.
Even supermax is not totally safe. Members of the Mexican Mafia managed to have an associate murdered in the ADX recreation yard in 2005. Hood said Paredes-Machado would not be housed near El Chapo, but word will inevitably reach the kingpin about his new neighbor.
“Many of the 342 inmates incarcerated at the ADX would benefit from assisting El Chapo as needed,” Hood said. “Even if moved to another one of the BOP's 122 institutions, word will follow about Paredes-Machado. El Chapo may not have support from all 157,000 federal inmates, but he has the means to gain assistance.”
Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter.