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El Chapo Sentenced to Life in Prison

The kingpin has escaped Mexican prisons twice — but no one gets out of ADX.

by Keegan Hamilton
Jul 17 2019, 2:33pm

Listen to the VICE News podcast "Chapo: Kingpin on Trial" for free on Spotify

El Chapo is going away for life — and he’s not happy about it.

The Sinaloa cartel boss, born Joaquín Guzmán-Loera, was sentenced to life in prison with no chance for parole Wednesday. In a packed hearing in the same Brooklyn courtroom where he was convicted on a 10-count indictment earlier this year, the kingpin said his trial was unjust, pointing to allegations of juror misconduct reported by VICE News after his conviction.

The hearing was almost certainly Chapo’s final moment in public, and he used it to speak his mind. Referring to the alleged misconduct, Chapo told the judge, speaking in Spanish through a translator: “In response, you decided to do nothing. You didn’t want to question not even one member one of the jury to determine if I received justice.”

Chapo’s epic three-month trial ended February 12 with a unanimous guilty verdict and featured testimony from more than a dozen former high-ranking cartel members, but the 62-year-old drug lord decided not to take the stand in his own defense. His remarks Wednesday were the first time he has spoken at length since a videotaped interview with Rolling Stone in 2016. He appeared in court Wednesday sporting a tidy salt-and-pepper mustache, and he blew kisses to his wife in the courtroom gallery throughout the hearing.

Judge Brian Cogan, who presided over Chapo’s trial, handed down the life sentence — plus 30 years to be served concurrently — which was mandatory under the law due to Chapo’s conviction for leading an organized crime group.

Chapo’s speech will likely be the last time the world hears from him. He escaped twice from high-security prisons in Mexico, most recently by riding a motorcycle through a mile-long tunnel that went directly into his cell. But he’s now widely expected to be shipped off to America’s most secure federal lockup, the so-called “Alcatraz of the Rockies” in Florence, Colorado, where there’s little chance of escape.

“They say they are sending me to a prison where my name will never be heard again,” Chapo said. “I take this opportunity to say there was no justice here.”

Read more: A juror speaks for the first time about convicting the kingpin.

Prosecutors disagreed. Assistant U.S. Attorney Gina Parlovecchio said Chapo deserved his life sentence and seemed appalled at his apparent lack of remorse. Turning to point at Chapo, she said, “Throughout his criminal career, this defendant has not shown one shred of remorse for his crimes, and you heard that again today.”

She was followed by Andrea Velez, a former Sinaloa cartel member who became a U.S. government informant after Chapo allegedly arranged to have her kidnapped and tried to hire Hells Angels members in Canada to have her killed. Clad all in black with her hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, Velez faced Chapo as she spoke.

“When I tried to leave the organization, I was told I could only do it one way: in a plastic bag, feet first,” she said. Fighting back tears, she continued: “I lost my family, my friends… I became a shadow without a name. I had everything, I lost everything, even my identity.”

As she described a kidnapping incident in Ecuador that she accused Chapo of ordering, Chapo turned in his seat and blew a kiss to his wife. Velez tearfully said that she forgave Chapo — but she didn’t want Chapo’s young daughters or any other woman who might become involved in the drug trade to have a similar experience.

Chapo is now likely headed to a prison that's officially called the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility, or ADX for short. It houses around 450 men deemed too dangerous to be held in less secure facilities. Every inmate is kept in solitary confinement, typically for 22 or 23 hours a day, but Chapo will be subject to even tighter restrictions. HIs lawyers asked that he remain in New York for the next 60 days to work on his appeal.

Because U.S. authorities remain concerned about Chapo’s ability to control the Sinaloa cartel from behind bars, as he did for years in Mexico, he is subject to “Special Administrative Measures,” or SAMs. These rules prohibit him from having contact with anyone other than his lawyers and close family members, including his mother, sisters, and daughters. He could also be blocked from reading or hearing any recent news reports.

According to former ADX warden Bob Hood, Chapo could be placed in a special area called Range 13, which has housed only two other inmates since the prison opened in 1994. The unit consists of four cells that are designed to keep occupants from seeing or hearing any other inmates.

“It allows staff to constantly relocate an inmate among the four cells to avoid potential escape attempts,” Hood wrote recently. “The area is under constant audio and visual surveillance. The 7x12-foot cell is occupied 23 hours per day, with just one hour of recreation in a small caged area.”

Chapo could also be placed in “H Unit” at ADX, which is mainly occupied by convicted terrorists under SAMs restrictions. The unit has been called “a special kind of hell”; prisoners there can go days without leaving their cells or speaking to anyone. Some inmates have protested the harsh conditions by going on prolonged hunger strikes, and prison officials have responded with force-feeding.

Chapo and his defense attorneys have been pushing back against his jail conditions since his extradition from Mexico in January 2017. He’s been held in solitary confinement in a high-security wing of a Manhattan jail known as “Little Gitmo,” and his lawyers say that in the extreme isolation “his mental conditions have suffered and his health is deteriorating rapidly." At his sentencing, he called it “torture.” His request to have outdoor exercise, ear plugs, and bottled water was denied in June after prosecutors argued he might use the items in an escape plot.

“I have been forced to drink unsanitary water, denied access to air and sunlight … to sleep, I have to use plugs made out of toilet paper in my ears. It has been psychological, emotional, mental torture 24 hours a day,” Chapo said at the sentencing. “It’s the most inhumane situation I’ve lived in my life.”

While Chapo will be allowed to see approved visitors at ADX, it’s unclear whether his family members will be able to enter the country. His mother, who is over 90, has appealed to the presidents of both Mexico and the U.S. for a “humanitarian visa” that would permit her and two of Chapo’s sisters to come see him. His wife, Emma Coronel, has been barred from visits, apparently because she helped orchestrate his 2015 tunnel escape. The couple’s 7-year-old twin daughters are dual citizens and have visited him in New York.

Read more: The 10 wildest moments and stories from Chapo's trial.

In addition to the life sentence, federal prosecutors have also moved to seize $12.6 billion from Chapo, the purported street value of all the drugs he shipped to the U.S. over more than three decades atop the Sinaloa cartel. So far, U.S. investigators have come up empty in their search for his cash.

Even with Chapo incommunicado and locked away in the U.S., business has continued as usual with the narco-empire he left behind in Mexico. Chapo’s sons and brother, Aureliano “El Guano” Guzmán, have taken over the family’s trafficking operation. Sinaloa cartel leader Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, Chapo’s longtime partner, has never been captured, though his eldest son and brother were among those who testified against Chapo during the trial.

Chapo’s attorneys have indicated they will appeal his conviction, but the odds of success are slim. The defense’s request for a new trial — filed after an anonymous juror described breaking several rules imposed by the judge — was denied on July 3.

Chapo’s lawyer, Jeff Lichtman, said during the hearing that “history will treat this verdict with skepticism.” He accused the judge of ignoring possible juror misconduct and “sweeping it under the rug.”

Judge Cogan referenced his ruling as the hearing ended, saying the incidents of misconduct described by the juror would not outweigh the “mountain range of evidence” that proved Chapo’s guilt during the trial.

As Chapo left the courtroom, he and his wife blew each other one last kiss.

Cover: This Feb. 22, 2014, file photo shows Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the head of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, being escorted to a helicopter in Mexico City following his capture overnight in the beach resort town of Mazatlan.

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