How ‘El Chapo’s’ Attorney is Fighting For His Client’s Right to a Fair Trial
Each day in his small cell in a Manhattan federal prison, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera battles severe headaches and vomiting, his lawyer says. He spends several hours with members of his defense team, reviewing 300,000 pages of discovery to prepare for his upcoming trial on charges including “leading a continuing criminal enterprise,” drug distribution, use of firearms, and money laundering. When he is alone, back in his cell, the Mexican-born Guzmán, the alleged leader of Mexico’s most powerful drug trafficking organization, the Sinaloa Cartel, reviews documents on a government-issued laptop. Excluding family and legal visits, Guzmán is locked in his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) for 23 hours per day.
Since January 2017, when Guzmán was extradited to the U.S. and admitted to the facility — which was once described as “worse than Guantánamo”—his legal team has repeatedly challenged his extreme confinement as unconstitutional.
In a court hearing on February 15 ahead of his September 2018 trial, Guzmán’s lead attorney, Eduardo Balarezo, asked that his client be able to air his grievances about the conditions of his confinement. Prosecutors objected to the request, arguing he could “use the opportunity to pass messages to the media or others.” U.S. Eastern District Judge Brian Cogan agreed to consider allowing Guzmán to speak at his next court hearing in April, and instructed him to put his complaints into a letter.
Guzmán may be a notorious figure, but he has never been convicted of a crime in the United States, and Balarezo is determined to ensure that his client’s due process rights are not violated.
“Every defendant has a right to a trial, whether he is Joaquín Guzmán or Joe Smith,” Balarezo told The Appeal. “We are optimistic that he will get a fair trial and we believe that if he does, a jury will be able to see through all the chaff and see the reality of this case and not just what the government wants them to see.”
Balarezo says that his client endures bleak conditions at MCC. The area where Guzmán is housed, known as 10 South, is so isolated that some prisoners there have reported deteriorating eyesight, according to the New York Times.In a nearby unit known as 9 South with similarly restrictive conditions, one prisoner wrote to the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) that temperatures in the cells hover around 50 degrees and that he has observed roaches and insect eggs in his food.
“[Guzmán] is having a great deal of difficulty with the conditions of his confinement,” Balarezo said. “He is having psychological problems, he is having auditory hallucinations. The medical treatment he gets is minimal at best and non-existent at worst.”
In December 2017, a psychologist evaluated Guzmán after Balarezo told the court that his client’s mental health was suffering at MCC.
Balarezo declined to discuss the psychologist’s findings, but he said that she concluded Guzmán suffered from the issues he described “as a result of his confinement.”
The government argues that Guzmán’s extraordinary confinement is necessary to keep him from staging a jailbreak, noting that he twice escaped from high-security prisons in Mexico.
Federal prosecutors use the same reasoning to argue that discovery in the Guzmán case should be highly protected. The defense team is forbidden from taking discovery out of the country or showing it to third parties such as associates or family members, who could potentially help his team fight the government’s case. The government has also redacted significant portions of the hundreds of thousands of pages of documents it has provided to the defense.
“The majority of the discovery is not identifiable in the sense of there are no dates, names,” Balarezo said. “Also, because much of it is heavily redacted, it is basically useless at this point.”
Prosecutors have hinted they are planning to recount, in detail, Guzmán’s rise from a marijuana farmer to the head of a cartel that allegedly raked in $14 billion over four continents.
Balarezo says the government’s case relies primarily upon cooperators who have disclosed information about the cartel’s operations. The defense team doesn’t know the identity of most of the witnesses who will be called to testify during the trial, excluding two brothers who used to operate within the Sinaloa cartel, Margarito and Pedro Flores, who are reportedly expected to be star witnesses. Both received 14 years in prison instead of life sentences for handing over covertly recorded conversations with Guzmán.
Balarezo says their testimony is not to be trusted because they benefit from testifying against Guzmán.
“We believe their testimony will be suspect and tainted and we hope the jury sees it the way it is,” he said. “It’s going to be obvious that most of these people are admitted criminals. They will be individuals who have committed murders, who have done horrendous things, who have signed onto the government’s team to trade their testimony in exchange for more lenient sentences.”
Making the case even more challenging for Balarezo, Judge Cogan ruled in early February that an anonymous and partially sequestered jury would be empaneled in order to protect jurors from alleged Guzmán associates. Balarezo unsuccessfully argued that an anonymous jury would give jurors the impression his client is dangerous and therefore guilty.
“This is a very difficult case mainly because of the restrictions on my client and on what we can do,” he said. “However, we’re going to do the best we can to make sure the government doesn’t just steamroll him with a case that’s primarily composed of cooperator testimony.”
A spokesman for the Eastern District of New York declined to comment and referred In Justice Today to court documents.