First he complained about the lack of bottled water in solitary confinement. Then he promised not to escape during “contact visits” with his attorneys. Now, Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán is arguing that he never should have ended up inside a maximum-security Manhattan jail to begin with.
The accused drug lord’s public defenders filed a motion Thursday — viewable in full below — to dismiss his federal indictment on the grounds that U.S. authorities violated protocol and misled the Mexican government when Guzmán was shipped in January from a prison in Juarez to Brooklyn’s Eastern District of New York.
Chapo is currently scheduled to stand trial there next April on drug, weapons, money laundering, and conspiracy charges that could put him behind bars for life. The latest maneuver by his attorneys is a long shot to get him off the hook. A recent ruling from a federal appeals court in a separate case does not bode well for the Sinaloan, and his judge in Brooklyn previously expressed skepticism when his lawyers raised questions about the legality of his extradition.
That said, the court documents filed Thursday raise seemingly valid questions about how exactly Chapo wound up in New York, rather than California or Texas, where Mexico had initially agreed to extradite him.
Chapo’s Federal Defenders, Michael Schneider and Michelle Gelernt, wrote to Judge Brian Cogan that U.S. authorities knowingly used statements that “contained false and misleading information” to secure his sudden extradition from Mexico on January 19. They also claim the government’s account of the legal process “strains credulity,” and allege that rules were bent to ensure that Chapo would be tried in New York.
The federal prosecutors handling Chapo’s case have yet to respond to the allegations.
For years, Mexico refused to extradite El Chapo, arguing that he should face justice in his home country. But after his daring 2015 escape through a tunnel from a maximum-security prison — the second time he’d slipped out of Mexican custody — President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government agreed to send Chapo north of the border to stand trial.
Mexico granted the extradition request on May 20, 2016, and the documents said Chapo would be sent to either San Diego or El Paso, home to two of the seven federal courts where he faces indictments. Chapo’s appeal of the decision was rejected by a Mexican judge on January 19, and that evening he was, as his lawyers put it, “suddenly and without warning… airlifted across the border to the United States.”
To send Chapo to New York — and downtown Manhattan’s heavily-secured Metropolitan Correctional Center — U.S. authorities had to seek special permission from their Mexican counterparts, filing what’s known as a “request for exception.” Normally, that process takes days or weeks. In Chapo’s case, it was a matter of hours. His attorneys find this suspicious.
“Miraculously, this request for a legal opinion was also allegedly made on January 19, 2017, perhaps as Mr. Guzman was 30,000 feet in the air, flying farther and farther away from San Diego and El Paso,” Chapo’s attorneys wrote. “Even more miraculously, the Mexican Attorney General’s Office purportedly issued its opinion concerning the Request for Exception on the same day.”
Adding to the intrigue, the government has refused to provide a copy of the “request for exception” to Chapo’s legal team, so it’s unclear exactly what justification was used to secure the last-minute change of venue.
What Chapo’s attorneys did allegedly discover from scouring publicly available court records is that the original extradition request relied on testimony from witnesses who were known to be unreliable, including “an admitted and convicted corrupt former Mexican law enforcement official and narco-trafficker” who contradicted himself several times. Another source was a former Chapo employee who was “an admitted cocaine abuser, who had acknowledged a daily habit of four grams of cocaine a day for the fifteen years preceding his arrest.”
Unfortunately for Chapo, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit — which has jurisdiction over New York federal courts — ruled just last week that “request for exception” complaints can only be raised by the country that did the extraditing, not criminal defendants. Chapo’s attorneys say the case was “wrongly decided,” and that other federal appeals courts are “divided” over the issue.
During one of Chapo’s pretrial court hearings in February, Judge Cogan was dismissive when Chapo’s attorneys tried to raise concerns about irregularities in the extradition process. The judge said Chapo would not have to sign the extradition documents to make them official, and that they could “drop on the floor” and still be legally binding.
Chapo’s attorneys also argued Thursday that U.S. authorities should not be allowed to seek $14 billion worth of asset forfeiture in the case. The massive dollar figure is the estimated value of the 250 tons of cocaine the Sinaloa Cartel leader shipped into the U.S. during his career, but his lawyers say forfeiture isn’t allowed under the terms of his extradition.
Chapo is due back in court in Brooklyn on August 14, and the issues raised by his attorneys in Thursday’s court filings will likely be on the agenda.