El Chapo returns to court and faces questions about why he can’t afford a lawyer
Sinaloa cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán was escorted by armed guards into a heavily secured federal courtroom in Brooklyn on Friday to make his second appearance before an American judge since his sudden extradition from Mexico two weeks ago.
The diminutive Chapo — his nickname means “Shorty” in Spanish — had his head shaved and his hands cuffed behind his back; he wore a navy blue prison uniform. He sat expressionless for most of the hearing as a translator whispered in his ear. His wife, former beauty queen Emma Coronel, and his Mexican attorney looked on from the gallery.
Federal agents armed with assault rifles stood guard outside the building. In order to be admitted to the courtroom, attendees had to pass through two security checkpoints where guards searched bags, clothing, and personal items. Prosecutors had sought to have Chapo appear in court by video conference, but Judge Brian Cogan denied the request, forcing federal authorities to put the courthouse on lockdown and transport the drug lord via a convoy from the high-security Manhattan jail where he’s being held.
The hearing covered questions about the legality of Chapo’s extradition, which occurred late on the evening of Jan. 19, as well as concerns about the drug lord’s continued representation by public defenders and his isolation in jail.
Early in the hearing, Michelle Gelernt, one of Chapo’s two court-appointed attorneys from the Federal Defenders organization, elicited a brief moment of laughter when she referred to her client as “Señor Guzmán,” then quickly corrected herself, calling him “Mr. Guzmán” for the rest of the proceeding.
The bulk of the hearing was devoted to the question of whether Chapo — who was once included on Forbes magazine’s list of billionaires — is unable to afford to hire his own private attorneys, an issue that was first raised in court documents detailed by VICE News earlier this week.
Cogan ordered Chapo to sign a financial affidavit declaring himself too poor to afford private counsel, and told prosecutors “if the government doesn’t like it, they can investigate it,” meaning they could try to prove that the drug lord has significant assets hidden somewhere.
Prosecutors claim the Federal Defenders will have a conflict of interest if they continue to represent Chapo, since the organization was previously involved with several witnesses who could be called against him if his case goes to trial. Prosecutors previously denied a request from VICE News to reveal the names of those potential witnesses, and it emerged in court on Friday that Chapo himself apparently remains unaware of their identities.
Gelernt said the Federal Defenders’ involvement with the unnamed individuals was minimal, and argued that it would be impossible for Chapo to decide for himself whether there’s a conflict of interest unless he knows who the mystery men are. Patricia Notopoulos, the lead prosecutor in the case, argued that the names should continue to be withheld due to security concerns. Cogan put aside the question for the time being, but chided the prosecutors for creating the unusual situation.
“You’re asking him to buy a pig in a poke,” Cogan said, using a colloquialism for purchasing or accepting something without knowing exactly what it is. “And I’m not going to do that.”
Gelernt said the “sprawling” scope of the case could make it virtually impossible to find an attorney who wouldn’t have some connection to one of Chapo’s associates, saying anyone who was involved in “any significant drug case out of Mexico or Colombia” could potentially have a conflict of interest. Prosecutors disclosed that the evidence against Chapo includes “tens of thousands of documents” and “tens of thousands” of wiretap “intercepts.”
The hearing also revealed new details about the circumstances of Chapo’s detention at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC), a fortress-like federal jail in downtown Manhattan. Gelernt said Chapo is being held in a “special housing unit” and is on lockdown for 23 hours per day. Only “a select group of people from our staff” are currently allowed to meet with Guzmán, Gelernt said.
“Things are so secure at the jail we’re not permitted to give Mr. Guzmán a glass of water,” she added.
Cogan denied Gelernt’s request to let Chapo’s wife or Mexican attorney visit him in jail or at the courthouse holding cells, saying he deferred to the judgment of the Bureau of Prisons and U.S. Marshals about the “unusual restrictions.”
Gelernt informed Cogan that federal prosecutors have refused to produce the Mexican legal documents that allowed Chapo to be extradited to Brooklyn rather than Texas or California, where U.S. authorities had initially sought to prosecute him on pending indictments.
Notopoulos asserted that the documents were not public in Mexico, a claim Gelernt disputed. Notopoulos also said “the Mexican government allowed a waiver of rules to have the defendant brought here.” Gelernt then informed the court that Mexican officials tried to have Chapo sign the waiver after he’d been extradited, while he was jailed in Manhattan. When the officials refused to let Chapo’s legal team review the documents, they declined to let him sign.
Cogan said there was “no reason not to produce the extradition documents,” and that unless Mexican law required it, Chapo would not be forced to sign the waiver document to make it official; the papers merely needed to be handed off in person to Chapo or his lawyers. The attorneys could let the documents “drop on the floor” and they would still be legally binding, Cogan said.
“We’ll catch them, judge,” Chapo’s other attorney, Steven Tiscione, responded.
Chapo remained silent throughout the hour-long hearing, and he was escorted out of the courtroom without incident when Cogan banged his gavel and adjourned the proceeding. His next court date is scheduled to occur in 90 days.
Chapo faces life in prison if he’s ultimately convicted of the 17-count indictment against him for drug, conspiracy, weapons, and money laundering charges.