Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán escaped twice from maximum-security prisons in Mexico. So now that he’s locked up in a New York City jail, U.S. authorities are taking every precaution to make sure he doesn’t slip away again. There’s just one potential problem: The drug lord’s attorneys claim the extreme security measures are unconstitutional.
And besides, they say — he’s too old and too polite to actually pull off another daring getaway.
While Guzmán awaits his trial next year on a slew of drug and money-laundering charges, he’s being held in solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC), a heavily secured federal facility in downtown Manhattan. The jail, also known as “Little Gitmo” because it houses so many terrorism suspects, has a maximum-security wing, which is where Guzman has resided since his extradition from Mexico in January.
At the MCC, Chapo is subject to restrictive “special administrative measures.” These rules prohibit visits from anyone except his public defenders, who currently represent the alleged billionaire kingpin because he claims he can’t afford to hire a private attorney. The meetings occur a converted storage space with a Plexiglas wall and metal dividers to keep Guzmán physically separated from his legal team.
Michelle Gelernt, deputy attorney-in-charge of the Federal Defenders of New York, claims her staff can’t adequately prepare for Chapo’s trial without “contact visits,” which would allow them to be on the same side of the Plexiglass barrier as their client. Federal prosecutors and jail officials maintain that letting Chapo into the same room as his lawyers would “present a number of insurmountable security challenges.”
The two sides sent letters to the court last week laying out their respective cases. The prosecutors, led by Bridget Rohde, the acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, argued that Guzmán can see and hear just fine through the room’s Plexiglass barrier and metal screen. She also noted that the room is equipped with a computer that has a monitor attached to a rolling cart, which can be wheeled up to the dividing wall so that Chapo can read court documents and listen to audio recordings. He also has a laptop, which he’s allowed to take into his cell along with compact discs loaded with evidence.
“Chapo has always treated us with respect, and we have no concern for our personal safety.”
Rohde even offered a few escape scenarios, claiming that if Chapo were allowed into his legal team’s side of the meeting area, he could “easily barricade the room by placing the table or wheeled cart against the door, causing a hostage situation.” She suggested he could break a water sprinkler, which “would make the room slippery and would make it easier for the defendant to evade guards.” She also said he could “hurt himself in order to get to a hospital so he could more easily escape,” suggesting he might electrocute himself with frayed wires or stab himself with shards from a broken compact disc.
Gelernt responded by calling those scenarios “speculative and implausible.” She claimed there is “no rational basis” to believe that the 60-year-old Guzmán — he stands at 5 feet 6 inches, hence his nickname, which means “Shorty” in English — could pull off an escape from the meeting room, which is located on the jail’s 10th floor.
“Mr. Guzman would have to pass through at least seven locked steel doors, descend a flight of stairs, and take a manned elevator — all with acquiescence of the highly trained [Bureau of Prisons] staff just to get access to the street, where he would encounter additional staff at the guard booth who would undoubtedly be armed and ready for his arrival,” Gelernt wrote.
She also said Chapo “poses no threat whatsoever to his legal team” and “has always treated us with respect, and we have absolutely no concern for our personal safety.” The attorney noted that his two escapes in Mexico — including one that involved a motorcycle ride down a mile-long underground tunnel — “involved no violence at all.”
More pertinent to the legal claims, Gelernt said the current meeting room setup makes it “virtually impossible” and “exceedingly difficult” to review thousands of pages of documents, listen to audio recordings, or carry on a conversation without being overheard by guards. The circumstances, she argued, violate Guzmán’s Sixth Amendment right “to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”
The government has offered to modify the jail’s meeting room so that Chapo can more easily see the computer monitor, and to install speakers so that he can hear recordings, but Gelernt wants to move to another room in the jail or a different facility altogether. Prosecutors counter that further changes to overhaul the meeting room “would take time and tremendous expense,” and that it’s too risky to move Chapo somewhere else. Rohde said, for example, that each time Chapo is transported from Manhattan to appear in court in Brooklyn, “law enforcement officials have to close down the Brooklyn Bridge.”
Rhode cited the example of Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, who was imprisoned at the MCC in November 2000 while he was awaiting trial on terrorism charges. Salim member nearly killed a guard by blinding him “with hot sauce that he had fashioned into a mace-like weapon” and then stabbing him in the eye with a sharpened plastic comb.
Gelernt responded to that anecdote by writing that “there is nothing in the government’s allegations or in Mr. Guzman’s history to suggest he is prone to the type of suicidal or irrational, unpredictable violence typically associated with a member of a terrorist organization such as al-Qaeda.”
When the issue of Chapo’s unusual attorney-client meetings was discussed during his last court appearance in May, Judge Brian Cogan seemed reluctant to intervene and overrule security decisions made by jail administrators. Cogan appointed a magistrate judge to investigate the situation, and a final decision on the matter is pending. Whether or not the cartel boss is allowed “contact visits,” he has plenty of time to prepare for his trial, which isn’t scheduled to begin until April 2018.