When he was imprisoned in Mexico, Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán enjoyed access to cell phones, prostitutes, and lavish parties that featured booze, lobster bisque, and filet mignon. Now he can’t even buy a bottle of water.
The infamous drug lord has been in solitary confinement since Jan. 19 at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC), a maximum-security jail in downtown Manhattan, where he’s awaiting trial in Brooklyn federal court on an array of drug and money-laundering charges. His attorneys are fighting to improve his situation, alleging that he is “being held under the worst, most restrictive conditions of any prisoner currently detained by the United States government.”
Public defenders for the billionaire cartel kingpin argued recently in federal court that the “draconian conditions of confinement” imposed on their client by the Bureau of Prisons and the Department of Justice are making it virtually impossible to plan his defense, and violating Guzmán’s constitutional rights to due process and freedom of religion.
In a March 29 letter to Judge Brian M. Cogan, Chapo’s attorneys from the Federal Defenders of New York said the government is trying “to make Mr. Guzman’s detention as difficult and unpleasant as possible.” Among the complaints, they said he’s been restricted to drinking tap water; he doesn’t have a proper window in his cell; he’s not allowed visits from his wife; and he has “yet to see a priest at the MCC who speaks Spanish.”
“Any interaction he has with ‘religious personnel’ has either been through pantomime or with the ‘assistance’ of a prison guard who speaks Spanish,” the letter said, alleging the restrictions “encumber Mr. Guzman’s right to the free exercise of his religion.”
The human rights group Amnesty International has sent a letter to the judge asking for access to the jail to investigate the conditions in Chapo’s cell, claiming the harsh terms of his solitary confinement “appear to be unnecessarily harsh and to breach international standards for humane treatment.”
Chapo, 59, is only allowed visits from members of his defense team, and he’s permitted just one hour of exercise per day, in an indoor cell. His attorneys say they have “seen Mr. Guzman’s condition deteriorate as he languishes in solitary confinement.”
Guzmán twice escaped from maximum-security prisons in Mexico, and U.S. federal prosecutors argue that the strict measures currently in place are necessary to prevent another jailbreak, and to stop him from running his drug cartel and ordering assassinations of people who plan to testify against him.
“There is a substantial risk that the defendant’s communications or contacts with persons associated with the Cartel and certain other third parties could result in death or serious bodily injury to persons, including potential witnesses in this case,” federal prosecutors wrote in a March 21 letter to Judge Cogan.
On April 3, Cogan approved a “protective order” that puts strict safeguards on evidence in the case, and prevents Guzmán’s Mexican attorneys and other foreign nationals from joining his U.S. defense team unless they’re granted special approval from the court.
The Federal Defenders are still trying to negotiate a way for Chapo’s wife, former Mexican beauty queen Emma Coronel, to visit, arguing that it’s necessary if he wants to make plans to get rid of his court-appointed lawyer and hire one of his choosing. Prosecutors say Coronel shouldn’t be allowed to speak to her husband because he could pass her coded messages.
Chapo’s attorneys have also complained about being closely watched while they meet with him at the jail. The lawyers told the judge that during visits they are “locked into opposite sides of a small enclosed booth” and separated by “a wall that is half metal screen and half Plexiglas.” The attorneys claim guards “monitor the contents of what are supposed to be privileged confidential communications.”
Prosecutors insist things aren’t so bad for Guzmán. They told the judge that frequent visits from his attorneys keep him busy, and said he “has a window with frosted glass that allows daylight to come into his cell.”
Chapo’s lawyers disputed the window claim, however, saying there’s merely “a space where a window may have once been.” They said Guzman “can’t say whether it ‘allows daylight to come into his cell’ because the light in his cell has never been turned off and he can’t tell from the ‘window’ if it is daytime or nighttime.”
Guzmán is due back in court for a hearing on May 5, where concerns about the conditions of his solitary confinement will likely be discussed. He’s pleaded not guilty to a 17-count indictment, but a trial date has not been set. If convicted, he faces life in prison.