MEXICO CITY — Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the world’s most notorious drug lord, has been having trouble sleeping.
The lights in his prison cell are on around the clock. The surveillance video and prison staff watch him 24/7. If a dozing Guzmán even inadvertently covers his face or crosses his arms, prison guards rouse him, according to his lead defense attorney, José Refugio Rodríguez.
“The conditions that he’s being held in are very drastic. He’s a victim of cruel and inhumane treatment well below the minimum standards established by the United Nations,” Rodríguez said in an interview. “This is practically torture.”
Guzmán has escaped federal prison twice during his infamous drug-running career and is now awaiting extradition to the United States. As Mexico’s most important prisoner, authorities want to impose the tightest possible surveillance lest they risk another humiliating jailbreak. Guzmán’s legal team has seized on these allegedly poor conditions to try to win a bit more freedom for their client as the case drags on.
Guzmán has been held in solitary confinement since early May, when he was transferred from a prison outside Mexico City to the federal lockup in Ciudad Juárez along the border with Texas. He lives in an air-conditioned, 80-square-foot cell that has a bed and a toilet and which is inside a new high-security wing that contains about 30 cells. Three times a week, Rodríguez said, Guzmán is allowed out onto a patio for one hour of fresh air.
“He’s depressed,” Rodríguez said.
Eduardo Guerrero Durán, the head of Mexico’s prison system, denied that Guzmán is suffering or in poor health. He said in an interview that Guzmán has access to relatives, lawyers, fresh air, books, chess and television and that he can wear an eye mask for sleeping, which affords him “perfect darkness.” Although prison protocol does not allow Guzmán to cover his whole face, he is allowed to cross his arms and move around while sleeping.
“This person has not been segregated, nor tortured, nor have we violated any of his rights,” Durán added. “We are making sure we comply with the law.”
On June 1, Guzmán’s wife, the former beauty queen Emma Coronel Aispuro, met with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington to discuss her husband’s case. A spokeswoman for the commission, Maria Isabel Rivero, said the content of Coronel’s discussions were confidential, but Coronel has publicly complained about sleep deprivation and allegedly harsh conditions suffered by her husband.
According to Guerrero, in the 65 days that Guzmán has been in the Juárez prison, he has gone out to the patio 27 times, for stints lasting between 45 and 75 minutes, depending on the weather. He has received nine visits by his lawyers. He has spoken to his family on the phone four times and seen them in person an additional 13 times. Guzmán is allowed an hour of television per day — he has watched the movie “The Perfect Game,” about Mexican children who play Little League baseball. He has read two books, the Spanish novel “El Final Del Ave Fenix” by Marta Querol and John Green’s high school love story, “Paper Towns.” (While in the Altiplano prison, authorities said Guzmán read “Don Quixote,” Miguel de Cervantes’s epic novel.)
Twice, Guzmán has had “intimate” visits from a “concubine,” Guerrero said.
Guzmán’s health has also been in order. He has been checked by doctors or nurses on 79 occasions. His blood pressure, taken daily, is currently 120 over 80, or “perfectly normal,” Guerrero said. Guzmán weighs the same amount, 167 pounds, as he did the day he arrived.
“He has not lost one single gram,” Guerrero said.
Guzmán faces a variety of charges relating to drug trafficking and organized crime in U.S. courts, including in New York, California and Texas. Mexico’s Foreign Ministry approved his extradition after U.S. authorities said they would not pursue the death penalty.
But late last month, two Mexican judges halted that process while his appeals are reviewed, which is a typical step in extradition proceedings. Guzmán’s attorneys argued that the statute of limitations had expired on some charges and that some accusations were based on hearsay.
Rodríguez, who coordinates a team of about 12 lawyers, four of whom oversee the extradition defense, estimated that this round of appeals might take six months and that the whole process could last three years or more. If a judge decides to proceed with the extradition, Guzmán can appeal yet again to a council of judges.
Others involved think it’s possible Guzmán could be shipped to the United States before the end of the year. While federal prosecutors in San Diego and El Paso have requested extradition, some think it’s most likely Guzmán will end up being prosecuted in Brooklyn.
Peter Carr, a Justice Department spokesman, said in a statement that Guzmán is charged in six separate indictments in the United States and that there are multiple extradition requests.
“The United States is awaiting the result of the extradition process in Mexico before making a final determination as to where Guzmán Loera will be prosecuted,” he said.
Guzmán also faces at least 10 legal proceedings in Mexico, including on charges of operating a clandestine airstrip, in jurisdictions such as Mazatlan and Los Mochis, two Pacific Coast towns where he was captured in the past, as well as in Culiacan, Matamoros, Toluca and Mexico City.
Guzmán’s defense team is hoping for one of two outcomes, Rodríguez said. In one, U.S. authorities would offer a plea deal in which Guzmán could serve his time in a medium-security prison in exchange for a guilty plea and his cooperation. The other would be house arrest, a possibility under Mexican law if the extradition process drags on for at least 11 more years, when Guzmán turns 70.
“Until we have a good agreement [with the United States], we have to keep fighting here in Mexico,” he said. “We have not lost.”
Guzmán, the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, a major drug trafficking organization that ships vast quantities of heroin and cocaine into the United States, escaped federal prison in 2001. He was captured in 2014 by Mexican marines during a raid on a condominium in Mazatlan. After more than a year in prison, he escaped through a hole in his shower stall and out through a mile-long tunnel.
During the ensuing manhunt, when Guzmán met with actor Sean Penn, authorities pursued Guzmán across the mountains of his home state of Sinaloa, eventually tracking him down in the town of Los Mochis. He was taken to the Altiplano prison, the same one he had broken out of, before being transferred to Ciudad Juárez because of security concerns.
While Guzmán has been locked away this year, there have been reports of growing conflict between his Sinaloa cartel and its rivals. The attorney general in the northern state of Chihuahua said Tuesday that there are signs that Rafael Caro Quintero, a longtime drug lord released from prison three years ago, may be “invading” his state and challenging the Sinaloa cartel for territory. There have been reports of growing violence in the border area between Sinaloa and Chihuahua, as well as in Guzmán’s Sinaloan home town of La Tuna.
Mexican authorities say they think the Juárez prison’s location, in a remote area on the outskirts of Juárez, makes it secure from an attempted breakout. After Guzmán’s last escape, prison authorities revamped their surveillance procedures so that they didn’t have vulnerabilities, such as the blind spot in the shower stall that Guzmán used to disappear down into the tunnel. Guerrero said there are no video blind spots in Guzmán’s current cell or in the high-security wing.
“We can guarantee all Mexicans that nothing like that will happen again,” Guerrero said.
Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.