World / 14 February 2019, 11:31am / TOM LEONARD IN NEW YORK
He escaped from one high-security prison by disappearing through the floor of his cell, and from another by hiding in a laundry trolley.
However, it’s unlikely that infamous Mexican drug baron El Chapo will ever slip away from his next destination.
Colorado’s bleak Supermax prison is where the United States incarcerates the ‘worst of the worst’ and when he’s sentenced in June it’s almost inevitable that he will spend the rest of his days there.
‘It is a sentence from which there is no escape and no return,’ said US Attorney Richard Donoghue after the verdict.
Once arguably the most powerful criminal in the world, Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, who held sway for decades over the all-powerful international Sinaloa drug-smuggling cartel, will be swapping a life of beauty queen mistresses and private jets stuffed with cash for the so-called ‘Alcatraz of the Rockies’.
Here, prisoners are confined for 23 hours a day in tiny concrete cells, deprived of almost all human contact. El Chapo certainly won’t be mixing with other inmates who include former London hate cleric Abu Hamza, British ‘shoe bomber’ Richard Reid, and Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
No wonder that newly released video of the cold-blooded cartel boss shows him in tears after he was brought to New York by U.S. authorities two years ago. Once considered ‘untouchable’, he knew it was all over for him the moment he left the jurisdiction of Mexico, where endemic corruption had long allowed him to operate with virtual impunity.
After a three-month trial in Brooklyn that provided a jaw-dropping picture of a multi-billion-dollar criminal syndicate at work, a jury found him guilty of all 10 charges on Tuesday.
Convicted of masterminding a huge operation that used murder, kidnap and torture, he faces a life sentence with no chance of parole and an infinitesimal chance of ever finding an empty laundry trolley — let alone an accomplice to push it. Guzman, the stocky and barely-educated son of a peasant farmer, was extradited to the U.S. in January 2017 because Mexico simply couldn’t hold him.
America’s only Supermax prison — its official name is ADX (which stands for Administrative Maximum Facility) Florence — doesn’t have that problem. Since it opened in 1994, no one has ever escaped.
It is ideal for housing thugs like El Chapo whose syndicates are still operating.
Former ADX warden Robert Hood has described the Supermax as ‘life after death . . . in my opinion, it’s far worse than death’. Others have dubbed it ‘the prison of prisons’, ‘inhumane’, and ‘worse than Guantanamo’.
Its 410 inmates are delivered in buses, armoured cars and even Black Hawk helicopters, to the sprawling 37-acre facility around 115 miles south of Denver. A dozen tall gun towers and razor wire fences surround the network of squat, hardened brick buildings which are patrolled 24/7 by heavily armed guards with attack dogs.
Specially designed ‘control units’ function as prisons within prisons, and inmates are confined in their single-person, 7ft-by-12ft reinforced concrete cells for at least 22 hours a day. The walls are thick and sound-proofed ensuring prisoners cannot communicate with each other.
The bed is a poured concrete slab covered with a thin mattress and blankets, and there is a combined lavatory, sink and drinking fountain.
The only furniture is an immovable concrete desk and stool, and for some prisoners, a small black-and-white TV showing carefully chosen educational and religious programmes.
Each cell has a slit-like 42in-tall, four-inch-wide window which is angled so there is no view of the sky nor of other cells.
This is intended to prevent inmates from even working out where they are in the prison complex. A former prisoner described Supermax as a ‘high-tech version of hell, designed to shut down all sensory perception’.
If an inmate needs a doctor, they must talk to them remotely through teleconferencing. Even contact with guards is highly restricted. Meals — eaten alone in the cell — are slid through small holes in the doors.
When taken outside their cells, inmates wear leg irons, handcuffs and stomach chains — and even then they are escorted by guards. Hundreds of cameras monitor their movements as metal doors slide open and shut along their route.
A daily recreation hour is allowed for inmates to exercise in an outdoor cage slightly larger than the cells and built into a concrete pit resembling an empty swimming pool.
However, it is likely El Chapo may end up in the Special H-Security Unit, also called the H-Hut, reserved for terrorists and others whose communications with the outside world demand the strictest controls.
Some prisoners here don’t even have contact with guards when they exercise; their cells have automated chutes that open on to private yards.
H-Hut prisoners can be visited by only their lawyers and immediate family, speaking over telephones through reinforced glass windows. All conversations are monitored except official legal ones.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that El Chapo, now 61, sitting listening to a translator, appeared stunned as the verdict was read out, glancing at his wife, Emma Coronel, who unconvincingly gave him the thumbs up even as she had tears in her eyes.
Prosecutors said 5ft 6in-tall El Chapo — whose nickname means Shorty — amassed a $14 billion fortune, and was responsible for 33 murders and trafficking more than 220 tons of cocaine as well as vast quantities of other drugs to America, Europe and beyond.
The trial heard 200 hours of testimony from 56 prosecution witnesses. They included 14 ‘co-operating witnesses’ — mostly his ex-criminal confederates — who the defence dismissed as ‘lifelong liars’ willing to perjure themselves in exchange for reduced sentences.
After persuading El Chapo’s technology chief to co-operate, too, the prosecution also provided surveillance photos, intercepted phone calls and text messages.
Trial proceedings veered between soap opera and horror film. El Chapo’s love of bling — his diamond-studded pistol was engraved with his initials and he had a gold-plated AK-47 assault rifle — was matched only by his playboy private life.
He kept a string of ‘narco- mistresses’ and fathered at least 15 children with different women.
When one of his girlfriends tearfully proclaimed her undying love for him even as she gave evidence against him, his 29-year-old wife — a voluptuous former beauty queen — laughed mockingly from the second row of the court’s public seats.
The following day, the husband and wife wore identical red velvet smoking jackets in an apparent co-ordinated show of solidarity.
The court heard how El Chapo kept a private zoo — including tigers, lions and panthers — which travelled around on a miniature railway.
Witnesses told how he and his men would take target practice with a bazooka and once plotted to murder a victim with a cyanide-laced pie.
One testified how El Chapo tried to have him killed by having a mariachi band play a threatening song all night outside his jail cell — before a hand grenade was hurled into it.
El Chapo enjoyed his notoriety and the celebrity it conferred on him. He once agreed to give an interview to Hollywood star Sean Penn while on the run and had been working on a documentary film about his life before his final arrest.
When, near the end of the trial, he heard that Alejandro Edda, an actor who plays him in the Netflix series Narcos: Mexico, was in the court to watch him, he smiled delightedly.
However, prosecutors also revealed the stomach-churning brutality of a drug lord who first achieved notoriety in 1993 when he was blamed for the killing of a Roman Catholic cardinal at Guadalajara airport.
Witnesses said El Chapo personally tortured, then murdered, three members of a rival cartel, including one he buried alive. Other bodies were tossed on bonfires.
He would shoot his own men in the head if a drug shipment was late. Prosecutors also produced evidence that El Chapo and his henchmen often drugged and raped underage girls as young as 13.
Alex Cifuentes, once El Chapo’s right-hand man, sensationally claimed during the trial that Guzman paid a $100 million bribe to former Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto in 2012 in return for allowing him to come out of hiding. A spokesman for Mr Pena Nieto has called the bribery claim ‘false and defamatory’.
Top-level officials in other Mexican administrations were also accused of taking huge bribes, including a head of public security who was given $3 million stuffed into two suitcases.
Police and officials frequently protected the cartel’s smuggling operation and warned El Chapo of any threats, the trial heard. Both his prison escapes almost certainly involved corruption.
El Chapo’s cartel used fishing boats, lorries, trains, radar-evading planes, passenger cars, submarines, oil tankers, and tunnels to get drugs across the border. Cocaine was even smuggled inside shoe boxes and cans of jalapeño peppers.
Having twice been jailed and twice escaped — once in the laundry basket in 2001 and again in 2015 via a specially constructed mile-long tunnel with a motorcycle on rails and electric lighting — El Chapo inevitably became obsessed with his own security.
He had more elaborate tunnel systems built under his various homes and safe houses, one hidden under a bathtub and another under a pool table.
El Chapo’s prison years in Mexico were hardly harsh. Corrupt guards and officials enabled him to live like a lord, entertaining favoured inmates with dinners of fine wine, lobster bisque and filet mignon.
He continued to handle business by phone and would satisfy an insatiable sexual appetite — he was said to have consumed Viagra ‘like candy’ — by summoning in prostitutes by the busload.
So ADX Florence is going to be quite a shock to El Chapo. A 2014 Amnesty International report concluded that the harsh regime of solitary confinement and sensory deprivation had a devastating effect on prisoners’ mental and physical health.
Two years earlier, a class action lawsuit on behalf of mentally ill prisoners claimed many of them ‘interminably wail, scream and bang on the walls of their cells’ or mutilate their bodies with whatever objects they can find.
Authorities counter that even inmates in the H-Hut can post letters, exercise in their cell, talk on the phone for up to 30 minutes a month and write books.
For the publicity-obsessed El Chapo — who worked hard to convince the ordinary people of Mexico that he was actually a dashing, latter-day Robin Hood — the chance to work on an autobiography might be the only consolation of his grim new life.
He will certainly have few distractions in Supermax.