El Chapo: Drug lord’s demand for more outdoor activity at prison ‘might be part of escape plan’

Maya Oppenheim

Mexican drug lord El Chapo’s recent demand for more outdoor activity might be part of a plan to escape from prison, federal officials have warned.

A lawyer for Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman asked a federal judge to intervene over “cruel and unusual” prison conditions for the drug cartel kingpin detained in a federal prison in New York.

Guzman, deemed to be “most powerful drug trafficker in the world” by the US, was convicted in February of running a criminal enterprise and other drug-related charges.

El Chapo has not had access to fresh air or natural sunlight during the more than two years in which he has been detained, his lawyer said in a letter to the judge, adding that he is forced to put toilet paper in his ears to cover up loud prison noise. The lawyer argues he needs more outdoor time.

The government formally responded to the allegations – saying outdoor time would be “problematic” due to an attempted prison escape taking place at the jail in 1981 and also because Guzman has successfully escaped institutions previously.

They said the only outdoor exercise space at the facility is a rooftop with a wire mesh covering – explaining that it was there that an inmate’s cohorts hijacked a sightseeing helicopter and tried to cut open the wire mesh covering.

The US government said: “In this case, any outdoor exercise time would be particularly problematic for this defendant. The defendant has successfully planned and executed elaborate escapes from two high-security penal institutions.

“As detailed at trial, one of the defendant’s escapes involved the construction of a sophisticated, ventilated tunnel that stretched for over a mile. Certainly, an escape via rooftop, using a helicopter, or any related means would be elementary by comparison.”

Guzman, who will be sentenced next month, faces life without parole for an organised crime conviction, and up to seven life sentences for drug convictions.

According to his defence lawyer, Mariel Colon, he has been in US detention for 27 months, and is in solitary confinement in a 10-by-8-foot windowless prison cell in Manhattan.

She asked the judge to order the Bureau of Prisons to allow Guzman access to two hours of outdoor exercise a week, earplugs and the same food and drink offerings as other prisoners.

However, the government said the drug lord has access to “several different types of exercise equipment, including an exercise bike and elliptical, and a vented window that provides the defendant with access to fresh, outdoor air and sunlight.”

El Chapo is known for his evasion of authorities and alleged bribes to Mexican officials. In 2016, El Chapo was recaptured after a gun battle in Sinaloa, his home state – finally putting an end to one of the most extensive manhunts ever taken by the Mexican authorities.

In an infamous escape in July 2015, El Chapo stepped into the shower in a prison cell and slipped away in full view of a video camera. Security later discovered a small hole in the shower floor.