El Chapo’s Mental State Takes Focus at Pretrial Hearing

Emma Coronel Aispuro (center) prepares to address reporters on April 17, 2018, after a pretrial hearing for her husband, incarcerated drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. On either side of Coronel are Guzman’s attorneys, A. Eduardo Balarezo and William Pupura. (AMANDA OTTAWAY, Courthouse News Service)

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – As New York readies for a federal trial of the notorious drug lord later this year, El Chapo’s 28-year-old wife complained outside the courthouse Tuesday about her husband’s confinement.

“I haven’t seen him for 15 months,” Emma Coronel Aispuro said in Spanish this afternoon, making her first statement to the press since the January 2017 extradition of her husband, otherwise known as Joaquin Archivaldo Guzman Loera.

“I only see him in court,” continued Coronel, who is a dual citizen of the United States and Mexico, as are her 6-year-old twin daughters with Guzman.

“I have no communication with him, no visits or phone calls,” Coronel added. “Only the lawyers and the girls have been able to see him.”

Charged with running a multibillion drug empire, Guzman faces 17 counts of conspiracy, criminal enterprise, drug trafficking, money laundering and other charges in a sweeping 2009 indictment by U.S. prosecutors. His trial is scheduled to run between three and four months, kicking off this September in Brooklyn . The government has also demanded $14 billion in forfeitures.

Awaiting that trial in solitary at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Correctional Center, Guzman has pleaded not guilty on all counts.

He sported dark blue prison scrubs and an orange undershirt for Tuesday’s hearing before U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan. Clean-shave, Guzman sat facing forward this afternoon, but kept his gaze on the Spanish interpreter to the left of Cogan and the gallery behind her, where his wife sat in the second row wearing a shoulder-bearing white blouse, cropped pants and black pumps.

Guzman had indicated at his last hearing that he wanted to address the court but the judge didn’t allow it. He did not speak Tuesday either, though the proposed agenda had indicated he might.

In a nod to the difficulties of wrangling an impartial jury this fall, owing to the  predicted length of the trial and notoriety of the defendant, Cogan said the court will send summonses to between 800 and 1,000 potential jurors.

“I don’t know that that’s ever been done before,” Cogan remarked, adding that the pool will then fill out questionnaires at the courthouse from July 31 to August 2.

William Purura, an attorney for Guzman, explained to reporters Tuesday outside the courthouse that the questionnaires will be about 20 pages long and possibly include over 100 questions, designed to whittle the pool down to 40 potential jurors.

The defense teams will design the questionnaires jointly with prosecutors, and jury selection will kick off on Sept. 5 with individual questioning of the final 40.

“I’m hoping it’s gonna be half a day,” Cogan joked about the length of the voir dire process.

Emma Coronel Aispuro address reporters on April 17, 2018, after a pretrial hearing for her husband, incarcerated drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. (AMANDA OTTAWAY, Courthouse News Service)

Guzman was charged alongside five other men, but he will go to trial alone. Two of his co-defendants have been dead since 2010, the year after a superseding indictment was brought under seal. Guzman is the most well-known of the defendants, a reputation aided in part by his two dramatic escapes from high-security Mexican prisons, which also spurred his extradition to New York.

During his reign over the Sinaloa cartel, prosecutors say, Guzman “employed ‘sicarios,’ or hitmen, who carried out hundreds of acts of violence, including murders, assaults, kidnappings, assassinations and acts of violence for a variety of reasons.” They also allege some of the cocaine was distributed in New York’s Eastern District.

Tuesday is not the first time Coronel has spoken disparagingly of the conditions of his confinement or health. She told Telemundo in 2016 that she was concerned about conditions in the Altiplano prison in Mexico, where he was previously held.

“My main worry is his health because I know he’s in a very bad psychological state,” she said in Brooklyn Tuesday. “He feels very bad, the lawyers have told me, and that worries me. How is he going to get to trial if his health is not good?”

Guzman’s lawyers agreed that his health is declining.

“You have to realize that since January of last year, so over 15 months, he has been in solitary confinement,” said A. Eduardo Balarezo, another of Guzman’s attorneys.

“We have noticed that his mental state has deteriorated, not just his memory but just his affect, the way he understands things. He is not the man that he was when I first met him.”

Balarezo said his team plans to have Guzman examined by a Johns Hopkins medical expert. He said his client was examined once before, in November.

“He needs to be competent in order to reach trial,” Balarezo said.

Emma Coronel Aispuro (center) prepares to address reporters on April 17, 2018, after a pretrial hearing for her husband, incarcerated drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. On either side of Coronel are Guzman’s attorneys, A. Eduardo Balarezo and William Pupura. (AMANDA OTTAWAY, Courthouse News Service)

Also at issue in Tuesday’s hearing were payments to Guzman’s lawyers. They have apparently been paid at least in part, but not by Guzman himself. Government prosecutors want to use those payments as evidence that Guzman has “unexplained wealth,” Balarezo said.

“The issue that arose is that obviously Mr. Guzman was not the person that made the payments given that he is in solitary confinement; he can’t talk to anyone,” Balarezo explained.

If Cogan allows the government to use the attorney payments as evidence, Guzman’s own lawyers could potentially be forced to act as witnesses on his behalf.

“And if we are witnesses in the case, then we cannot be his lawyers,” Balarezo said.

Both Cogan and the defense also took issue with prosecutors’ lengthy discovery process, arguing they need time before the trial to examine recordings and hundreds of thousands of pages of evidence.

“I’m not entirely pleased with the government’s compliance with discovery,” Cogan said in court, noting how long it was taking prosecutors to turn over evidence. Balarezo agreed.

“According to them, they’ve been investigating Mr. Guzman since the ’80s,” he said at the hearing. “They need to get it on the table.”

Guzman’s next hearing is scheduled for May 30 at 10 a.m.

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