When Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is sentenced Wednesday in federal court in Brooklyn, New York, it could be the last time the public – and even some members of his family – ever see him in person.
Guzman, 62, was convicted in February by a jury of all 10 counts he faced, including engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise and drug trafficking charges, among others. Prosecutors have called him a “ruthless and bloodthirsty leader” of the Sinaloa cartel and are seeking a life sentence.
Witnesses during the trial testified that Guzman ordered and sometimes took part in the torture and murder of perceived cartel enemies.
Attorney Mariel Colon, who has visited Guzman regularly in prison before, during and after his trial, says she is optimistic about his chances on appeal.
But if the appeal is not successful, “then this will be the last time the public will see El Chapo,” Colon told CNN. “It could be potentially also the last time El Chapo could see his wife.”
Colon said Guzman’s wife, Emma Coronel, has not decided if she will appear at his sentencing before US District Judge Brian Cogan, who presided over his trial. But she is not permitted to visit or correspond with Guzman in prison. He is limited to phone calls and visits from certain family members, including his twin 8-year-old daughters.
Even if Guzman files an appeal, it would be unlikely that he would appear in court, Colon said.
In the months since Guzman was convicted by a jury, he has signed away the rights to his name so that Coronel may start an El Chapo-branded clothing line and asked for better conditions at the Manhattan prison where he is being held. He also has been asked by the US government to fork over $12.6 billion.
The identities of the jurors who decided his fate have remained anonymous for their own safety. But shortly after the verdict one juror spoke to Vice News anonymously and alleged a wide range of possible juror misconduct, ranging from following news reports about the trial, which was expressly forbidden, to lying to Cogan about whether they’d been exposed to certain media reports.
Cogan denied Guzman’s request for a new trial and a hearing to investigate the claims.
His colorful life behind bars
Guzman, who has been in isolation for two-and-a-half years, is expected to serve out his sentence in the nation’s most secure federal prison in Florence, Colorado.
“He’s going to Supermax, I’m sure, in Colorado,” Guzman lawyer Jeffrey Lichtman told CNN’s “New Day” the day after he was convicted. “No one has ever escaped. It’s absolutely impossible. It’s not even an issue.”
Until he is transferred, Guzman remains at the Metropolitan Correction Center, a federal prison in Manhattan. He is able to be visited by members of his legal team any day of the week, and is allowed to receive a phone call from his sister every 15-20 days, Colon said. But once he is transferred to Colorado, attorney visits may be more limited, she said.
“What we’ve really been discussing more is the appeal,” Colon said. “We really need to discuss as much as possible now because we won’t get to visit him regularly like now for the appeal.”
Guzman’s history escaping prison has weighed on prosecutors’ minds, both during his trial and after his conviction. Guzman escaped from Mexican prisons twice.
In 2001 Guzman escaped by hiding in a laundry cart. He spent the next 13 years in hiding in and around his home state of Sinaloa.
He was recaptured in 2014, but former associate Damaso Lopez testified during Guzman’s trial that he, Guzman’s wife and other family stayed in touch with Guzman while he was held in prison in the Mexican city of Altiplano. Lopez testified that Guzman asked for a tunnel to be built directly into Guzman’s cell.
The mile-long tunnel, complete with electricity and ventilation, was in the works for month and Lopez learned that Guzman “hearing noises where he was, those who were excavating (the tunnel) were already underneath.”
Guzman escaped from the Mexican prison a second time, on July 11, 2015.
Tight security in New York
Since Guzman’s third arrest in 2016 — where he was extradited to the US — he has been under a tighter watch. He was brought to New York, where he remained through his trial and sentencing.
Security surrounding Guzman’s trial was so tight that the Brooklyn Bridge was shut down each week to allow Guzman to be transferred in a motorcade — complete with a helicopter escort — from the MCC to the federal courthouse in Brooklyn for his months-long trial.
While Guzman has been held in the US, his communications have been limited to members of his legal team and his sister, with occasional visits from his twin daughters. He is not allowed to meet with his wife. And with his attorneys, he is only allowed to discuss aspects of his case.
Since his conviction, Guzman’s legal team has filed requests for better prison conditions at the MCC, where he is kept in solitary confinement 23 hours a day in his 10 x 8 cell. His attorneys say that since he was brought to the US he has spent more than two years without any access to fresh air or natural light, adding that he must sleep with the light on in his cell, conditions that attorneys say are “psychologically scarring.” He also asked for two hours of outdoor exercise a week.
Cogan denied Guzman’s requests for improved prison conditions.
Prosecutors have said the only place for outdoor exercise is on the rooftop of the MCC, which is surrounded by tall buildings in lower Manhattan and covered with a protective wire mesh. They raised concerns of possible escape plans by the notorious former drug lord, and cited an attempted 1981 jailbreak from that very spot in which an inmate’s associates hijacked a sightseeing helicopter and attempted to cut through the wire screens surrounding the rooftop.
So Colon is trying to prepare Guzman for what conditions will be like at the Colorado prison.
“It’s worse than where he is at right now,” she said. Colon added that Guzman’s isolation from his family will be difficult. “It’s sad, it’s stressful, it’s emotionally heartbreaking,” she said.