MEXICO CITY — On weekdays, drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán sits in a small, windowless cell for 23 hours a day. The light is always on. The air conditioning makes him shiver. His meals get slipped through a slot in the door.
His one remaining hour can be spent alone in an exercise room consisting of one treadmill and one stationary bike. On weekends, all 24 hours get spent alone in his cell in a wing known as 10 South in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Lower Manhattan. Guzmán could distinguish day from night only by a clock he bought from the commissary — until guards one day took that away.
That is the picture that Guzmán's defense attorneys painted of the prison conditions facing the former leader of Mexico's Sinaloa cartel, a man regarded as the world's most notorious drug trafficker. His attorneys filed documents on Monday asking Judge Brian M. Cogan to take Guzmán out of solitary confinement and to allow him visits with his wife, Emma Coronel. Because of these austere conditions and his isolation from anyone but his appointed lawyers, the defense argued, Guzmán's “physical and mental health have deteriorated further since his arrival in the United States.”
“He has difficulty breathing and suffers from a sore throat and headaches. He has recently been experiencing auditory hallucinations, complaining of hearing music in his cell even when his radio is turned off,” the defense team said.
Guzmán has a long and storied criminal history in Mexico leading one of the country's most powerful drug trafficking organizations and supplying narcotics across the United States. He has escaped from federal prison twice — the last time fleeing through a mile-long tunnel that led to the shower stall inside his prison cell. Guzmán was extradited to the Eastern District of New York on Jan. 19, the last full day of President Barack Obama's administration, in a move that some Mexican officials described as a going-away present for Obama.
Guzmán has pleaded not guilty to 17 counts relating to drug trafficking charges and running a criminal enterprise.
He has been kept in the Manhattan prison under tight rules known as “special administrative measures.” His lawyers say he has had no contact with his wife, family or Mexican legal team. He has not been allowed a single phone call, even to his attorneys, they said.
The defense is arguing that the prison restrictions he lives under have violated constitutional rights by preventing him from hiring private lawyers and developing his defense, as well as his right to the free exercise of religion and free speech by being blocked from talking to the media.
“Our goal is to somehow ameliorate the conditions that he's under now,” said one of his defense lawyers, Michael Schneider. “I don't think it's tenable for him to live that way for the year or more it will take to try this case. We run a real risk of him going crazy.”
Judge Cogan could ask government prosecutors to respond before deciding whether to grant the motion. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of New York declined to comment about the motion.
Guzmán's relatives and Mexican legal team also complained of his prison conditions while he was being held last year in an 80-square-foot cell at a federal prison on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, near the border with Texas. One of his lawyers at the time, José Refugio Rodriguez, described the situation as “practically torture.”
Mexican officials disputed that characterization and noted that Guzmán had access to relatives, fresh air, books, chess and television, and they said he could wear an eye mask for sleeping.