Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman is the former leader of the international drug syndicate, the Sinaloa Cartel. The semi-illiterate Chapo grew up in a poor farming family and first got involved with the drug business when he began planting marijuana with his cousins in the 60s. He became the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel after the Guadalajara Cartel split into factions.

Guzman’s ruthless efficiency as a drug trafficker and senseless murder and torture of his adversaries drove him to the top of the most wanted list in Mexico and later, in the United States. Thanks to his vast resources, El Chapo evaded capture for decades. His luck ran dry, however, when he was arrested in early January 2016 in Los Mochis, Sinaloa.

El Chapo is serving his life sentence at the United States Penitentiary Maximum Facility, ADX Florence.

El Chapo’s lawyers claim that the conditions at El Chapo’s prison are inhumane

After El Chapo’s capture, he was hastily extradited to the United States to face trial for his numerous crimes. The jury found him guilty of all counts before the judge, who said that Chapo deserved the harshest possible sentence for his crimes, sent the former drug trafficker to life in prison plus 30 years. 

Chapo went missing for two days after his sentencing as authorities secretly transferred him from federal jail in Manhattan to ADX Florence, Colorado. Prison authorities organized a secret transfer, fearing that Chapo would attempt to escape if they made news of his move to Colorado public. 

Their fears had a basis, as Chapo had twice escaped from prison in Mexico. In 2001, he bribed Mexican guards to wheel him out of prison in a laundry cart; and in 2015, he escaped from prison via a tunnel originating from his prison shower and ending outside the prison walls. 

Few would put a third escape beyond the capabilities of El Chapo – the Sinaloa Cartel is still a major drug trafficker and is led by people loyal to Chapo – but no one has ever escaped from ADX Florence. The maximum-security prison houses the worst criminals in United States history, and therefore, it is tightly guarded. 

El Chapo’s lawyers have complained that the conditions in the prison are inhumane. El Chapo spends 23 hours in his cell and is allowed an hour to get fresh air. His lawyer, Mariel Colon, told Univision:

“He looks much skinnier, a little more stifled. He is not doing well there. It is the saddest I have ever seen him. He spends all his time in isolation, nobody speaks Spanish, the guards don’t speak Spanish, so many things are difficult for him.”

Guzman had also claimed that the conditions at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, where he was held before his incarceration, were unfit for human habitation. “It’s been torture, the most inhumane situation I have lived in my entire life,” Chapo said. But, while Guzman and his lawyers complain, the authorities that spent years chasing him celebrate. 

“Thousands of people died or were ordered killed because of the Sinaloa Cartel,” DEA Special Agent in Charge Ray Donovan told CNN. “So yeah, he doesn’t leave his cell. It is boring. It’s monotonous. It’s a daily routine. It is very sad but here’s the difference. He’s alive. And that means he could do plenty of things, unlike many of his victims.”

Guzman’s prison experience has worsened due to the coronavirus pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic hit prison populations harder than the general United States population, according to research.

Due to the surge in infections and deaths, the Federal Bureau of Prisons temporarily suspended all visits and internal inmate movements. The measures imposed by the Bureau impacted El Chapo’s life at the prison nicknamed ‘Alcatraz of the Rockies.’

The Special Administrative Measures governing Guzman’s stay at the prison limit the people who can visit him to his attorneys and his youngest twin daughters. Due to the pandemic, all visits to Chapo were canceled. Mariel Colon talked to CNN about Chapo’s crippling loneliness:

“He’s even more alone now after Covid-19. They completely cancelled all visits, legal and social. He was allowed three hours a week of outdoor exercise but that has also been suspended in order to limit his contact with the guards, so of course this has been hard, or harder on him and it has affected Mr. Guzman emotionally and psychologically in my opinion.”

El Chapo’s legal team hopes to secure his return to Mexico where he faces criminal charges

El Chapo’s legal team first sniffed an opportunity to have his sentence overturned after one of the 12 anonymous jurors reached out to Vice News and claimed that most jurors ignored court instructions to avoid news reports about the case. The juror also stated that most jurors lied when they were asked whether they were exposed to certain information. 

Guzman’s lawyer’s application for a new trial was denied. “I think the judge ruled correctly,” Donovan said. “I really don’t think there is a basis there.” Chapo’s lawyers filed another appeal in September 2020 claiming that his trial was unfair. “Chapo Guzman’s prosecution was marred by rampant excess and overreach,” defense lawyer Marc Fernich wrote in the 250-page appeal

Donovan, however, believes that an appeal is futile due to the ‘mountain of evidence’ against El Chapo. “I don’t think he has a chance of an appeal,” he said. Chapo’s lawyers haven’t given up hope and are turning to Guzman’s native Mexico for help. Jose Refugio, another of Chapo’s lawyers, claims that Chapo should be returned to Mexico to face a criminal trial as his extradition to the United States was illegal.

According to him, El Chapo’s extradition approval happened way quicker than normal. Furthermore, Guzman’s trial happened in a state that didn’t request his extradition. He told AA:

“For us in that moment was a violation of the due process because he did not have the possibility to defend himself from that extradition request, even with the legal appeal that we promoted against Mexico’s Foreign Relations Secretary.” 

It appears that Guzman’s lawyers will explore every legal avenue to secure Chapo’s freedom. “My personal impression is that everyone that is facing a life sentence like that is going to hold on to every piece of hope,” Mariel Colon told CNN. Donovan, however, sees no chance of Chapo ever getting out. “No one has ever escaped Supermax. He has no chance at all of ever getting out of there.”

Manhattan Court of Appeals judges appeared to entertain El Chapo’s claims of juror misconduct

In October 2021, El Chapo’s lawyers filed an appeal at the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan seeking a new trial for Chapo.

Chapo’s legal team argued that juror misconduct entitled Chapo to a new trial. The judges appeared to entertain the claim that the trial judge should have inquired whether jury members were following the trial via news channels or social media.

“You (have) five jurors who don’t know the meaning of an oath,” El Chapo’s lawyer, Marc Fernich, told the court. “If that doesn’t cry out for instant inquiry, I don’t know what does.”

El Chapo’s lawyers argued that ‘unprecedented restrictions made it impossible’ to prepare a defense. Prosecutors countered by stating that the restrictions were necessary in El Chapo’s case. Justice Department’s Brett Reynolds told ABC News:

“This judge was presented with a defendant who had already escaped from prison twice in dramatic fashion, who had a history of intimidating and killing perceived rivals and who had previously run his criminal enterprise while incarcerated.”

They further argued that the appeal should fail as it’s hearsay evidence. “The evidence here is not competent,” Justice Department’s Hiral Mehta said. “It’s just not. It’s anonymously sourced. It’s non-corroborated. It is hearsay and double hearsay.”