US Judge Sentences ‘El Chapo’ to Life Plus 30 Years

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – Unless he makes another miraculous escape, the notoriously slippery Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman will spend the rest of his life behind bars. 

Guzman, 62, is not happy about it.

Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is escorted from a plane to a waiting caravan of SUVs at Long Island MacArthur Airport, in Ronkonkoma, N.Y., on Jan. 19, 2017. (Photo via U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration)

The drug lord, convicted in February of murder conspiracy and other charges related to his role at the head of the Sinaloa cartel, addressed the packed courtroom for about 15 minutes at his sentencing hearing Wednesday morning. Through a translator, Guzman spent most of that time criticizing his conditions of confinement and the juror misconduct that he claims prejudiced the case.

“When I was extradited to the United States I expected to have a fair trial,” Guzman said, “where justice would be blind” to his reputation, “but it was actually the opposite.”

Guzman’s lawyers had asked for a new trial back in March after Vice News published an anonymous account of the trial from inside the jury box. Though jurors are supposed to avoid media coverage during the trial, the article said these commands were flouted by multiple jurors.

U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan nevertheless denied Guzman’s motion earlier this month and refused to grant an evidentiary hearing, emphasizing that the evidence against Guzman was so overwhelming  that even substantiation of the report would not make a difference.

Overwhelming puts it mildly. Over the course of a three-month trial this winter, prosecutors meticulously laid out serious crimes spanning multiple decades. More than a dozen cooperators testified, over 50 witnesses in all.

New York defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman, center, addresses reporters Wednesday after his client Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was sentenced to life plus 30 years in prison. (Photo by AMANDA OTTAWAY, Courthouse News Service)

Defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman nevertheless painted his client’s trial as unfair this morning in his remarks to the court.

“In the end, how we treat our most reviled in society is a measuring stick of our own society,” Lichtman said. “History will treat this verdict with skepticism.”

Before Cogan imposed a sentence of life in prison plus 30 years, Guzman echoed these criticisms in his statement.

“The U.S. is not any better than any other corrupt country,” Guzman said.

Cogan rested one cheek on his hand, watching passively as Guzman criticized the proceedings as a show trial.

“My case was stained, and you denied me a fair trial where the whole world was watching.”

Since his extradition 2 1/2 years ago from Mexico, Guzman has spent the bulk of this period in solitary confinement at the notorious “10 South” wing of the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan. It’s likely he will spend the rest of his days at ADX Florence, a super-maximum-security prison in the Colorado desert.

Guzman condemned these conditions in his statement to the court today.

“With all due respect, it’s been torture,” Guzman said. “It’s the most inhuman situation I’ve lived in in my life. It’s been [a] lack of respect for human dignity.”

Previously the court cited Guzman’s history in determining that his leash would have to be exceptionally short. Twice before his 2017 extradition, Guzman escaped high-security prisons in Mexico.

Guzman, who was clean-shaven for his trial, alleged that he was denied clean drinking water behind bars, as well as “access to fresh air and to sunlight.

“We are in the 21st century,” Guzman said. “We should not be subjected to this cruel and inhumane treatment.”

Wednesday’s hearing also included a victim-impact statement from Andrea Velez, a former agent of Guzman, who says he tried to have her killed.

Guzman’s fate today was all but assured following his Feb. 12 conviction on federal charges including drug trafficking, money laundering, use of firearms and murder conspiracy. The most substantial conviction was on a continuing criminal enterprise charge, essentially created to prosecute high-level drug traffickers. 

“The overwhelming evidence at trial showed that the defendant was a ruthless and bloodthirsty leader of the Sinaloa Cartel,” U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue wrote in a July 10 sentencing memorandum. 

Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski addresses reporters in Brooklyn on Wednesday after Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was sentenced to life plus 30 years in prison. (Photo by AMANDA OTTAWAY, Courthouse News Service)

He and other federal agents and prosecutors repeated that sentiment outside the courthouse after the sentencing Wednesday.

“This sentence is significant, but it is well-deserved,” Donoghue said, standing in a throng of at least seven camouflaged, assault-rifle-toting officers and scads of other security members.

Also outside, Lichtman and attorney Marc Fernich told reporters they plan to appeal, largely on the grounds of the juror-misconduct issue. 

Notable witnesses included a former cartel IT guy, a former mistress and literal partner-in-crime of Guzman, a fellow drug lord who’d had disturbing facial surgery in an attempt to evade capture, and the son of Guzman’s alleged partner, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada. Mexican actor Alejandro Edda, who plays Guzman in the Netflix series “Narcos: Mexico,” even showed up in the courtroom to watch for a few days.

As he entered and left the courtroom Wednesday, Guzman, in a gray suit and light purple shirt, blew kisses to his 30-year-old wife, Emma Coronel, who sat in the gallery, and tapped his heart with an open palm. They may never see each other again.

“She’s crushed by this,” Lichtman said Wednesday. Coronel did not speak to reporters.

On July 5, prosecutors demanded Guzman forfeit over $12.6 billion to the U.S. government, an ask one of his lawyers called “insane.” He does not have that much money, lawyer Mariel Colon said last week.

Prosecutors based the number on the street value and amount of drugs they say the cartel trafficked. Donoghue noted Guzman’s conviction on the continuing criminal enterprise charge, meaning the jury decided he was a “principal leader” of the Sinaloa cartel. 

“Accordingly, he is liable for all of the proceeds of the cartel’s drug activity,” wrote Donoghue, later adding: “The defendant’s organization obtained for distribution, conservatively, over $12,666,191,704.00 worth of illegal drugs.”

Reporters lined up outside the Brooklyn federal courthouse Tuesday evening, some spending the night on the sidewalk, trying to snag seats in the courtroom for Wednesday’s sentencing of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. (Photo by AMANDA OTTAWAY, Courthouse News Service)

Guzman spent a few days recently just three doors down from former financier and alleged pedophile Jeffrey Epstein in jail in Manhattan, the New York Post reported.

It’s not yet clear whether Guzman’s grim fate — “the downfall of this really shiny object,” as InSight Crime co-director Steven Dudley called it earlier this year — will deter future drug kingpins or traffickers.

As Guzman himself said in a 2015 video interview for actor Sean Penn: 

“Drug trafficking doesn’t depend on just one person … it depends on a lot of people,” Guzman says in the video.

A few minutes later, he’s asked whether he thinks he is responsible for high rates of drug addiction and the proliferation of drugs in the world.  

“No, that’s false,” Guzman tells the camera. “Because the day I don’t exist, it’s not going to decrease in any way at all.”

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