Escape from New York unlikely for Mexican drug lord

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 January, 2017, 11:27pm
UPDATED : Friday, 27 January, 2017, 11:35am

The world’s most notorious drug kingpin has a new home, a place were he cannot escape or do business, a dreaded stronghold in lower Manhattan sometimes called “the Guantanamo of New York”.

Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is being held, at least for now, in the Metropolitan Correctional Centre, a featureless concrete fortress just south of Chinatown. The detention centre has been the temporary home of mafia dons and terrorists, Ponzi schemers and drugs lords.

“He has to know it is over,” said Jamie Hunt, US Drug Enforcement Administration special agent in charge of the investigation. “He is in a US prison now. He is not going to be able to communicate.”

Less than 24 hours after his extradition from Mexico, the 59-year-old Guzman appeared in a federal courtroom in Brooklyn on Friday to be arraigned on charges of drug trafficking, conspiracy to murder and firearms violations. Represented by a government-appointed federal defender, he pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Guzman is alleged to have been one of the biggest ever drug traffickers, responsible for sending 440,000 pounds of cocaine to the United States. He has attained mythical status in Mexican popular culture and beyond.

In court, however, he looked paunchy and subdued. He appeared to speak no English and used

an interpreter. Answering questions about whether he understood his rights posed by US Judge James Orenstein, he spoke softly, and said nothing more than “Si, senor”.

In a surprise move on the eve of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, the Mexican government extradited Guzman to the US – apparently a parting gift to the Obama administration. He ­arrived late on Thursday at an airport in Long Island.

“This most notorious criminal of modern times, as you looked into his eyes you could see the surprise,” said Angel Melendez, a homeland security agent describing seeing Guzman getting off the plane.

“You could see the shock. To a certain extent, you could actually see the fear as the realisation started to kick in that he is about to face American justice.”

A 13-car motorcade transported Guzman from the airport to the Manhattan detention centre.

Guzman has twice broken out of Mexican prisons – in 2001 in a laundry basket and in 2015 through a tunnel that was dug by associates under his shower. The Metropolitan Correction Centre might prove up to the task of confining the Houdini of drug lords.

“I assure you, no tunnel will be built leading to the bathroom,” Melendez said.

Built in 1975, the 12-floor structure has slit-shaped windows with frosted glass that prevents prisoners from peering out at the busy city. A tunnel leads to the adjacent federal courthouse, allowing prisoners to be moved without seeing daylight, though it is unclear whether Guzman will ever pass through it since he is being tried across the East River in Brooklyn.

The facility holds about 700 prisoners who are awaiting trial. Guzman is not the first ­celebrity criminal to have passed through its gates. Among the others are Gambino crime family boss John Gotti, scam artist Bernard Madoff, terrorists Omar Abdel-Rahman and Ramzi Yousef and weapons trafficker Viktor Bout.

“It is worse than Guantanamo,” said New York lawyer Joshua Dratel, who has defended several high-profile terrorism suspects who were housed at the Metropolitan Correctional Centre. “It is about as soul-negating existence as there is in this country in the federal system.”

Prisoners have tried to escape, a rare success coming in 1978, when three inmates sawed through bars.

In a daring but unsuccessful attempt three years later, a couple hijacked a sightseeing helicopter and tried to pluck an inmate from the rooftop recreation area. In 2000, an al-Qaeda member stabbed a guard in the eye with a sharpened comb, leaving him brain-damaged and blind in one eye.

To expedite the extradition, US prosecutors waived the death penalty, which Mexico opposes. The US is pursuing a sentence of life in prison and a forfeiture of US$14 billion from his drug profits.

“He is a man known for no other life but death, crime and destruction, and now he’ll have to answer for it,” said US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Robert Capers at a press conference on Friday.

Debunking El Chapo’s mythical status, he said: “Guzman’s story is not one of a do-gooder, or Robin Hood or escape artist ... Guzman’s rise is akin to that of a small cancerous tumour that has metastasised in a full-blown scourge.”