Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán has mostly remained silent during the handful of times he has appeared in federal court since his extradition from Mexico last January. On Thursday, during his latest pretrial hearing, Chapo asked to speak — but the judge wouldn’t hear it.
UPDATE 7:25 p.m. ET: Chapo's lawyer has released the text of the letter he intended to read to the judge. Read it in full below.
After discussion of routine matters related to the Sinaloa cartel leader’s upcoming trial, which is now officially set to begin with jury selection on September 5, Chapo’s lawyer, Eduardo Balarezo, surprised Judge Brian Cogan by announcing that Chapo “desires to speak directly to the court” to address “various issues.”
Cogan, who was clearly caught off guard by the request, asked Balarezo to sum up what Chapo intended to say. Balarezo replied that it had to do with the “Special Administrative Measure” or SAMs at the Manhattan jail where Chapo is being held in extreme solitary confinement. Balarezo said Chapo feels that “the conditions of confinement under the SAMs are prohibiting him from obtaining the defense he wants.”
Cogan responded with a deep sigh and a long pause. He appeared open to the idea, and Chapo, who looked thin, but clean shaven, and with a fresh haircut, briefly rose from his seat to read aloud from a letter than he had prepared in advance. A pair of court security guards asked him to remain seated.
Then the judge had second thoughts.
After a lengthy sidebar conversation with Balarezo and federal prosecutors — during which white noise was played on courtroom speakers so that the conversation wouldn’t be overheard — Cogan asked both sides to explain the situation to the full court. Prosecutors objected to Chapo speaking because they claimed he could “use the opportunity to pass messages to the media or others.” Then Balarezo laid out the issue at hand. “He wants the family to know they should pay his attorney,” he said.
The comment was in response to recent reports in the Mexican media that Chapo’s family in Mexico is having second thoughts about ponying up the dough for his legal defense. The reports, which cited unnamed sources close the family, referenced concerns that his case is a lost cause. Balarezo said Chapo wanted to make it clear “he’s going to trial and he’s not going to cooperate.” Balarezo added: “He wants his family to pay for his attorneys.”
Chapo’s legal representation has been an issue from the outset. Although the drug lord is purportedly a billionaire, he was initially represented by public defenders. Prosecutors are trying to seize $14 billion worth of drug proceeds from Chapo, and it’s possible they could try to go after money earmarked for Chapo’s attorneys. Cogan has already declined to intervene to stop that from happening, and the prospect of not getting paid has already kept one of Chapo’s would-be attorneys, Jeffrey Lichtman, on the sidelines of the case.
Chapo’s wife, Emma Coronel, was in the audience with his two young daughters, and the judge asked why Balarezo’s statement wouldn’t be sufficient notice of Chapo’s request. “Sometimes people need to hear from the horse’s mouth,” Balarezo replied.
“With all due respect, the persons we’re dealing with don’t necessarily rely on the attorney’s word,” Balarezo added a few moments later. “That’s all I’m saying.”
Afterward, while speaking to reporters, Balarezo declined to answer a question from VICE News about who exactly those unnamed persons were that Chapo’s message was intended for, except to say “hopefully they know who they are.” Balarezo said that he had received an initial fee payment through unnamed “friends” of Chapo, but explained that there were issues about continuing to receive payment for what stands to be a costly, months-long job.
In the courtroom, Cogan suggested that Chapo write a letter outlining his desires and send it to his wife or sister, but Balarezo noted that the SAMs make that process unwieldy. It takes up to 60 days for Chapo’s correspondence from jail to be translated and reviewed for security concerns, and the only way around it would be for Balarezo to fly to Mexico and hand-deliver the letter. Balarezo is also barred from passing along messages from Chapo to third parties, as are Chapo’s family members.
Appearing exasperated, Cogan asked why Balarezo simply didn’t use FedEx or another private carrier, and eventually struck a compromise between the defense and prosecutors that will shorten the clearance time for Chapo’s jailhouse letter to be delivered to 10 days.
Balarezo said Chapo also wished to air complaints about conditions in the jail. Chapo could be overheard telling his courtroom translator in Spanish something to the effect of, “I’m sick.” Balarezo said later that Chapo was suffering from severe headaches and vomiting daily for unknown reasons. Chapo’s lawyers have claimed previously that solitary confinement is causing him to lose his memory.
When Chapo tried to speak up again, Cogan again shut him down. He asked Balarezo to have Chapo put the concerns in a letter to the court and said he would consider letting him speak at the next hearing on April 17.
“I may yet hear from him but not today because it’s too soon,” the judge said.