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 Center, a featureless concrete fortress just south of Chinatown. The detention center 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, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration special agent in charge of the investigation. “He is in a U.S. 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 Friday to be arraigned on a 17-count indictment 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 drug traffickers of all time, responsible for sending 440,000 pounds of cocaine to the United States. He 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 U.S. Magistrate Judge James Orenstein, he spoke softly, saying 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 United States — apparently a parting gift to the Obama administration. He arrived late Thursday night at an airport in Long Island.
Angel M. Melendez, a Homeland Security agent, was there when he got off the plane.
“This most notorious criminal of modern times, as you looked into his eyes you could see the surprise,” he said. “You could see the shock. To a certain extent, you could actually see the fear as the realization 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 center.
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 Center just 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-story 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 and scam artist Bernard Madoff, terrorists Omar Abdel Rahman and Ramzi Yousef and weapons trafficker Viktor Bout.
Guzman is mostly likely to be housed in the notorious 10 south wing, the segregated housing unit for prisoners who need to be separated from the general population.
“It is worse than Guantanamo,’’ said New York attorney Joshua Dratel, who has defended several high-profile terrorism suspects who were housed at the Metropolitan Correctional Center. “It is about as soul-negating existence as there is in this country in the federal system.”
The correctional center is featured in a soon-to-be published book titled “Hell is A Very Small Place”, about solitary confinement. One of the former prisoners, Uzair Paracha, a Pakistani convicted of supplying travel documents to Al Qaeda, is quoted in the book as saying that the bed, desk, and seat were all made of concrete.
“The cells were the coldest places because the metallic sheets on the walls turned the cells into ice boxes, freezing us inside instead of insulating us from the outside weather, and food items would freeze if I kept them in some parts of my cell,” he said. “The summers made the cells into ovens.”
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.
It is unclear how long Guzman might stay at the facility. Federal officials have declined to give any comment on his accommodations because of security concerns.
Guzman also faces charges in California, Florida, Illinois, New Hampshire and Texas. Federal prosecutors in those states had been vying to try their hand at convicting Guzman, but Brooklyn won out. The U.S. Attorney in Miami will jointly prosecute.
In order to expedite the extradition, U.S. prosecutors waived the death penalty, which Mexico opposes. The U.S. government is pursuing a sentence of life in prison and a forfeiture of $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 U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Robert L. Capers at a press conference 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 tumor that has metastasized in a full-blown scourge.”
In Mexico, officials denied any political motivation or “fast track” process in the extradition of Guzman, who was handed over to U.S. authorities on President Obama’s last full day in office.
Guzman’s legal appeals — including a petition before the nation’s Supreme Court — had simply run out and Mexico was obliged to comply expeditiously, officials said.
“We had to do the hand-over immediately,” Alberto Elias Beltran, Mexico’s deputy attorney general, told reporters in Mexico City. “To not do so would have generated non-compliance with international norms, and specifically with the [extradition] treaty between Mexico and the United States.”
A number of playful headlines recounted the surprising turn of events.
“Trump arrives, El Chapo goes,” declared Milenio newspaper.
The sudden extradition of Guzman from his prison cell in the border city of Ciudad Juarez blindsided both the cartel leader and his legal team, his lawyers said.
“Where are they taking me, to El Altiplano?” a handcuffed Guzman reportedly asked while he was being whisked out of his Juarez lockup and put on a helicopter to the Juarez airport, from where he was flown to Long Island.
He was referring to the Altiplano prison complex from which he had escaped in July 2015 through a tunnel that was almost a mile long and had taken nine months for his workers to construct.
Guzman’s lawyers labeled the extradition “illegal,” but conceded there was little they could do about it, beyond filing symbolic complaints with international human rights panels.
“We knew we were against the power of the state,” Jose Refugio Rodriguez, one of Guzman’s lawyers, told Mexican radio. “Joaquin Guzman is not coming back.”
Cecilia Sanchez of the Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed.
11:55 a.m.: This article was updated with Guzman’s not-guilty plea.
This article was originally published at 8:35 a.m.