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El Chapo’s memory is fading because of solitary confinement, lawyer says

Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán has developed an “inability to remember people, places and events” as a result of his solitary confinement, according to court documents filed Thursday night by his attorney. The former Sinaloa cartel leader, held since January in a frigid cell in Lower Manhattan, is scheduled to go on trial in April in Brooklyn on charges that could lead to life in prison.

The lawyer, A. Eduardo Balarezo, has requested “a thorough neuropsychological evaluation” for the accused kingpin, claiming that nearly a year of extreme solitary confinement at a maximum-security federal jail has caused “a marked deterioration in his mental state.” Chapo’s symptoms include, “auditory hallucinations,” paranoia about “the government ‘recording’ his cell and legal visits,” and depression.


“Mr. Guzmán has begun repeating himself often and sometimes forgetting what the discussion is about,” Balarezo wrote in a letter to the court. “In addition to his apparent mental decline, Mr. Guzmán also suffers from myriad physical problems, including constant headaches, ringing in his ears and throat pain.”

READ: The Sinaloa cartel is alive and well without El Chapo

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York declined to comment on the filing.

The conditions of Chapo’s confinement at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in downtown Manhattan have been a contentious issue since his extradition from Mexico nearly 11 months ago. He is subject to strict “Special Administrative Measures” that keep him in near-total isolation. The government claims the precautions are necessary to prevent Chapo, who twice escaped from maximum-security prisons in Mexico, from attempting another jailbreak.

Balarezo listed the conditions in his letter Thursday. They include:

  • Complete isolation from other inmates
  • Complete isolation from his wife and other loved ones
  • No communications with anyone except the defense team
  • One hour per day outside his cell to exercise
  • Frigid cell temperatures
  • Lack of clean bed covers (no clean blankets since he arrived at MCC)
  • Constant lighting in his cell preventing restful sleep
  • Minimal medical care
  • No fresh air

In a phone call with VICE News, Balarezo said the jail conditions are “severe and extremely harsh” and may violate his client’s due process rights, since it affects his ability to prepare for his trial. Asked for some examples of “people, places and events” that Guzmán no longer remembers, he declined to comment, citing attorney-client privilege.


READ: Inside the war to replace El Chapo in the Sinaloa cartel

“I’ve been seeing him now for several months, and he’s obviously a very intelligent person,” Balarezo said. “He was able to provide a lot of information, but I’ve noticed a decline in his mental state. It takes him a while to remember things. Sometimes he can’t remember names or can only remember a first name. I can definitely see he’s changing as time goes on.”

Balarezo’s letter states that if Chapo’s mental health issues go untreated, it “may eventually result in a finding of incompetence” that would prevent him from standing trial.

Chapo was initially represented by public defenders who described similar issues that arose their meetings with him at the MCC. During legal visits at the jail, Chapo is physically separated from his lawyers by a plexiglass barrier. The attorneys have fought for the right to have “contact visits,” which they claim are necessary in order to review the mountains of evidence the prosecutors plan to use during the trial. A magistrate judge appointed to investigate the situation sided with Chapo’s lawyers, but Judge Brian Cogan ultimately rejected the request on Oct. 17, ruling that modifications to the visiting room would suffice.

READ: El Chapo’s attorneys say jail is worse for him than anyone else

Balarezo has requested that a neuropsychologist from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine be allowed to have a “contact visit” with Chapo to conduct the mental evaluation. Chapo is due back in court on Nov. 8, and the issue of his mental health will likely be on the agenda.