NEW YORK — The Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman has been sentenced to life behind bars in a U.S. prison, a humbling end for a drug lord once notorious for his ability to kill, bribe or tunnel his way out of trouble.
A federal judge in Brooklyn handed down the sentence Wednesday, five months after Guzman’s conviction in an epic drug-trafficking case.
The 62-year-old drug lord, who had been protected in Mexico by an army of gangsters and an elaborate corruption operation, was brought to the U.S. to stand trial after he twice escaped from Mexican prisons.
Before he was sentenced, Guzman, complained about the conditions of his confinement and told the judge he was denied a fair trial. He said U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan failed to thoroughly investigate claims of juror misconduct.
“My case was stained and you denied me a fair trial when the whole world was watching,” Guzman said in court through an interpreter.
“When I was extradited to the United States, I expected to have a fair trial, but what happened was exactly the opposite.”
The harsh sentence was pre-ordained. The guilty verdict in February at Guzman’s 11-week trial triggered a mandatory sentence of life without parole.
The evidence showed that under Guzman’s orders, the Sinaloa cartel was responsible for smuggling mountains of cocaine and other drugs into the United States during his 25-year reign, prosecutors said in court papers re-capping the trial.
They also said his “army of sicarios” was under orders to kidnap, torture and murder anyone who got in his way.
The defense argued he was framed by other traffickers who became government witnesses so they could get breaks in their own cases.
Guzman has been largely cut off from the outside world since his extradition in 2017 and his remarks in the courtroom Wednesday could be the last time the public hears from him.
Guzman thanked his family for giving him “the strength to bare this torture that I have been under for the past 30 months.”
Wary of his history of escaping from Mexican prisons, U.S. authorities have kept him in solitary confinement in an ultra-secure unit at a Manhattan jail and under close guard at his appearances at the Brooklyn courthouse where his case unfolded.
Experts say he will likely wind up at the federal government’s “Supermax” prison in Florence, known as the “Alcatraz of the Rockies.”
“There’s this mystique, right?,” said former federal prosecutor and defense attorney Doug Richards. “Everybody wonders about Supermax and Florence. People talk about it and yet, not a lot is known about it because not a lot of people go into it.”
Most inmates at Supermax are given a television, but their only actual view of the outside world is a 4-inch window. They have minimal interaction with other people and eat all their meals in their cells.
“It’s just you and your thoughts for 23 hours a day,” Richards told FOX31. “If you want to write a letter to somebody, they give you a tiny little pen that’s basically the size of a crayon. It’s made of a rubbery material so you can’t turn it into a weapon.”
If Guzman goes to Supermax, he’ll join a list of some of the most notorious federal prisoners in the country.
This includes Oklahoma City bombing associate Terry Nichols, shoe bomber Richard Reid, the Unabomber and more.
“It’s probably the best place for him (Guzman), as far as housing prisoners who are high security risks or high escape risks,” said Dr. James Ponzi, a homeland security expert and chair of the criminology department at Regis University.
Ponzi added that most inmates at Supermax are locked in their cells for 23 hours per day and constantly monitored by cameras and guards. They even eat in the cells, with food delivered through a slot in the door.
No one has ever escaped from the prison since it opened in 1994.
“If he (Guzman) managed to escape from there, I would be one surprised individual,” Ponzi said.
While the trial was dominated by Guzman’s persona as a near-mythical outlaw who carried a diamond-encrusted handgun and stayed one step ahead of the law, the jury never heard from Guzman himself, except when he told the judge he wouldn’t testify.
But evidence at Guzman’s trial suggested his decision to stay quiet at the defense table was against his nature: Cooperating witnesses told jurors he was a fan of his own rags-to-riches narco story, always eager to find an author or screenwriter to tell it.
He famously gave an interview to American actor Sean Penn while he was a fugitive, hiding in the mountains after accomplices built a long tunnel to help him escape from a Mexican prison.
There also were reports Guzman was itching to testify in his own defense until his attorneys talked him out of it, making his sentencing a last chance to seize the spotlight.
At the trial, Guzman’s lawyers argued that he was the fall guy for other kingpins who were better at paying off top Mexican politicians and law enforcement officials to protect them while the U.S. government looked the other way.
Prosecution descriptions of an empire that paid for private planes, beachfront villas and a private zoo were a fallacy, his lawyers say. And the chances the U.S. government could collect on a roughly $12.5 billion forfeiture order are zero, they add.
The government’s case, defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman said recently, was “all part of a show trial.”