BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) — Now spending 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, Sinaloa drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman has visitation with only a handful of attorneys — and not his beauty-queen wife.
Seated in the front row of the courtroom, former Miss Coffee and Guava pageant-winner Emma Coronel Aispuro has been denied access to her husband Guzman since his Jan. 19 extradition to the United States.
Neither has Mexican attorney Silvia Delgado been allowed to visit Guzman in New York’s Metropolitan Detention Center, which has been holding the indicted kingpin pending trial on charges that he smuggled 200 tons of narcotics.
U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan hinted at a Friday morning hearing that the prison has a good reason to restrict Guzman’s visitors.
“Obviously, they’re taking additional security measures,” Cogan said. “We understand the reason for that.”
Gaining a reputation as an escape artist, Guzman has whisked himself out of Mexican prisons twice already. The last jailbreak occurred nearly two years ago with help from associates who dug two sophisticated tunnels connecting to Guzman’s cell.
A viral video of that underground network humiliated the Mexican government and gave “El Chapo” a teflon-coated reputation as a man untouchable by law enforcement.
But the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s special-agent-in-charge Angel Melendez signaled that those days came to an end on the day of Guzman’s arraignment. “I assure you,” Melendez told reporters, “no tunnel will be built leading to his bathroom.”
Guzman’s attorney Michelle Gelernt complained this morning that the Bureau of Prison’s tight grip went too far, choking off access to the full might of Guzman’s legal team at the Federal Defenders of New York.
The Bureau of Prisons has granted access so far only to the group’s executive director, David Patton, along with two co-counsel and two paralegals. Gelernt requested access to more members of the office, but she insists that permission has come too slowly to defend her client adequately.
“We understand the need for security, but we feel it goes above and beyond,” she said.
Disagreeing, Cogan emphasized that he would defer to the Bureau of Prisons and U.S. marshals unless their measures went “beyond the pale,” a standard that the judge ruled had not been met.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Goldbarg questioned why the well-heeled Guzman should have taxpayer-funded attorneys at all.
Facing a $14 billion forfeiture, Guzman is accused of running a ruthless narcotics empire stretching across four continents.
Other than his native Mexico, Guzman’s Latin American empire is said to have included “source countries” Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela, and the “vast majority” of his business traded through such U.S. cities as Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, El Paso, Chicago, Atlanta and New York.
The Sinaloa cartel’s network also ran as far north as Canada, and he “diversified his portfolio” through a methamphetamine trade that extended their presence through Africa and Asia, prosecutors say.
Another question hovering over Guzman’s counsel is whether the Federal Defenders of New York will be allowed to represent him at all, as the group previously retained five witnesses against their new client.
Judge Cogan declined to rule on Friday whether Guzman’s finances or his counsel’s alleged conflicts will require a shakeup on his legal team.
Officially designated today as a “complex case,” Guzman’s prosecution involves “tens of thousands” of documents and “multiple years” of wiretapped conversations, prosecutors say.
The charged conspiracy begins in the late 1980s when Guzman climbed through the ranks of a syndicate known as the Mexican Federation.
For some Mexicans, Guzman’s meteoric rise transformed him into a folk hero, despite the U.S. and Mexican government’s best efforts to depict him as a ruthless killer.
While the indictment details how hit men for the Sinoloa cartel committed “hundreds of acts of violence, including murders, assaults, kidnappings, assassinations and acts of torture,” prosecutors acknowledge that Guzman developed a “cult-like celebrity” in his native Sinaloa.
“He was viewed as a modern-day Robin Hood, popular with the down-trodden and extolled in popular songs,” the indictment states. “There was civil unrest and popular protests in the streets of Mexico, condemning Mexican authorities for their valiant efforts in his capture.”
Indeed, two of Guzman’s supports rallied outside of his hearing at the Brooklyn federal courthouse on Friday.
One of them, Bronx nurse Israel Galindo, held a Mexican flag in his right hand and a double-sided protest sign in his left.
On one of the side, the sign said: “Chapo, Mexico’s Poor People Support You!”
“Chapo, I admire you!” the reverse said exclaimed simply.
Asked about his affection for the drug lord, Galindo spoke about Guzman’s humble origins, seizing control of a drug trade he said was once dominated by the Mexican government without ever having finished primary school.
“We have in Mexico a narco-government,” Galindo said in an interview in Spanish.
Where the Mexican government failed to deliver social services and infrastructure for its citizens, Galindo said, El Chapo provided for the country’s poor.
“The government has the obligation to give schools, hospitals and housing to the people,” he said, adding that Guzman constructed buildings like these in Chihauhau, Durango and Sinaloa.
A phalanx of reporters — representing dozens of international news outlets — stood next to these two lone admirers of El Chapo, as the press awaited statements from Guzman’s lawyers following the hearing.
The next proceedings have been scheduled for May 5.