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Prosecutors want to know why billionaire drug lord El Chapo needs a public defender

Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is widely regarded as one of the world’s richest drug lords, but he’s currently enjoying a privilege generally reserved for America’s poorest criminal defendants.

Since the Mexican kingpin was extradited to New York on Jan. 19, he’s been represented by two court-appointed public defenders. El Chapo is due back in federal court in Brooklyn on Friday, and federal officials are questioning whether he’s really too poor to afford his own attorney.


On Jan. 27, U.S. Attorney Robert Capers and Arthur Wyatt, the chief of the Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section in Department of Justice’s Criminal Division, sent a letter to Judge Brian M. Cogan asking the court to look into El Chapo’s financial situation.

“The court should make a strenuous inquiry into whether the defendant is financially unable to afford counsel,” the letter said. “Such an inquiry is necessary to ensure that American taxpayers are not needlessly paying for the representation of Guzman, the billionaire leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, the world’s largest and most prolific drug trafficking organization.”

The letter notes that Forbes magazine once included El Chapo on its list of the world’s richest men, estimating his net worth at more than $1 billion. It also claims the cartel leader was responsible for shipping at least 250 tons of cocaine into the U.S. worth at least $14 billion — money the U.S. wants him to repay through asset forfeiture.

The federal officials also refer to “numerous well-published accounts of Guzman’s wealth,” including stories about his daring escape from a maximum-security Mexican prison through an elaborate tunnel in January 2015.

“As part of its investigation into Guzman’s escape, the Mexican authorities stated that Guzman expended a significant amount of money for the escape,” the letter said. “Press accounts estimate the cost of the escape as over a million dollars.”


In court documents filed Monday, Guzman’s attorneys, Michael K. Schneider and Michelle Gelernt, of the Federal Defenders of New York, explained the unusual situation that led them to represent the drug lord. El Chapo’s extradition was so sudden, Schneider and Gelernt wrote, that one of his lawyers in Mexico was actually at the prison where he was being held “and was not informed of his client’s circumstances” before he was “airlifted” to New York.

Guzman was scheduled to make his first court appearance on Jan. 20, the day after his extradition, and he needed U.S. attorneys on extremely short notice. The court-appointed defenders met with him that morning, and represented him later in the afternoon when he pleaded not guilty to a 17-count indictment that includes an array of drug, conspiracy, and money-laundering charges.

It’s unclear whether El Chapo actually wants to keep his public defenders going forward. In their letter to the judge, the federal officials said the government “is aware that Guzman is making inquiries of private counsel,” and they anticipate he will eventually hire a private attorney. He also has yet to file a financial affidavit, a document that requires him to prove he’s too poor to afford his own lawyer.

If the drug lord decides to keep the court-appointed lawyers, it could lead to some awkward moments in the courtroom if his case goes to trial. The federal officials noted that the federal defenders have “represented two potential cooperating witnesses,” who could testify against him, as well as “three co-conspirators” from the Sinaloa cartel.

John Marzulli, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York, declined to name the co-conspirators and cooperating witnesses. He also declined to provide further comment on El Chapo’s lawyer situation.

Meanwhile, El Chapo’s free attorneys are fighting to ensure he gets a fair shake in court. Federal prosecutors have asked Judge Cogan to let the drug lord make scheduled court appearance on Friday by “video transmission” rather than in person. Guzman’s lawyers have objected to the request, arguing that his “presence in court is necessary to ensure his faith in the fundamental fairness of the American judicial process.”

The lawyers note that El Chapo is currently being held in solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a highly secure jail in downtown Manhattan, where he ”is locked in a cell 23 hours a day and only allowed to leave to meet with his attorneys and for one hour of solitary exercise.”

The attorneys said there has not been “a single complaint” that suggests their high-profile client has been “uncooperative or disruptive in any way.” They claim that “his absence from the courtroom would necessarily lead to the public impression that Mr. Guzman is too dangerous to be brought to the courtroom.”