NEW YORK (AP) — It’s a scene U.S. authorities have dreamed of for decades: One of history’s most infamous drug lords, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, facing justice in an American court.
As it finally unfolded Friday, authorities faced another challenge — actually holding onto a notorious escape artist who has pulled off two brazen prison breakouts in his native Mexico.
A hush descended over a Brooklyn courtroom moments before a dazed-looking Guzman entered Friday, a day after his extradition from Mexico. Security at the courthouse was stepped up to levels used for terror suspects, with officers armed with assault rifles and bomb-sniffing dogs.
Holding his unshackled hands behind his back, Guzman appeared calm and collected as he gave yes and no answers, through an interpreter, to a judge’s questions.
He entered a not-guilty plea through his court-appointed lawyer to drug trafficking and other charges and will be held without bail in a jail that has handled terror suspects and mobsters.
“It is difficult to imagine another person with a greater risk of fleeing prosecution,” prosecutors wrote in court papers.
Prosecutors described Guzman as the murderous architect of a 3-decade-long web of smuggling, brutality and corruption that made his Sinaloa cartel a fortune while fueling an epidemic of drug abuse and related violence in the U.S. in the 1980s and ’90s.
“He’s a man known for a life of crime, violence, death and destruction, and now he’ll have to answer for that,” said Robert Capers, the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn.
The U.S. has been trying to get custody of Guzman since he was first indicted in California in the early 1990s. American authorities finally got their wish on the eve of the inauguration of President Donald Trump, who has lashed out at Mexico for sending the U.S. “criminals and rapists” and has vowed to build a wall at the Mexican border.
When Guzman got off a plane in New York, “as you looked into his eyes, you could see the surprise, you could see the shock, and to a certain extent, you could see the fear, as the realization kicked in that he’s about to face American justice,” said Angel Melendez, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent.
While Guzman faces federal charges in several U.S. states, federal prosecutors in Brooklyn won the jockeying to get the case. The U.S. attorney’s office there has substantial experience prosecuting international drug cartel cases and was once led by outgoing U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
New York City also boasts one of the most secure lockups in the United States, the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan.
The drab-looking building protected by steel barricades that can stop up to 7 1/2 tons of speeding truck, in an area watched by cameras capable of reading a newspaper a block away. Inhabitants have included Ramzi Yousef, the architect of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; several former close associates of Osama bin Laden; Ponzi king Bernard Madoff; and the late Gambino crime family boss John Gotti, labeled by the tabloids as the “Dapper Don.”
In the jail’s special high-security wing for the riskiest inmates, roughly a dozen inhabitants spend 23 hours a day in roughly 20-by-12-foot cells, prohibited from communicating with one another.
Meals are eaten in cells, and exercise is in a recreation area specifically for these inmates. Only a limited number of carefully vetted jailers would be allowed access to an inmate with Guzman’s wealth and potential to corrupt people, said Catherine Linaweaver, a former MCC warden who retired in May 2014.
The special unit’s strict confinement drew criticism from the human rights group Amnesty International in 2011.
The jail saw an audacious escape attempt in 1982, when two armed people in a hijacked sightseeing helicopter tried to grab an inmate off a rooftop recreation area after he and others took a guard hostage. Four years before, three prisoners had broken out by cutting through window bars, according to news accounts.
Now in his late 50s, Guzman faces the possibility of life in a U.S. prison; prosecutors also are seeking a $14 billion forfeiture. They had to agree to not seek the death penalty as a condition of the extradition.
Guzman presided over a syndicate that shipped tons of cocaine from South America to the U.S. using tanker trucks, planes with secret landing strips, container ships, speedboats and even submarines, prosecutors said. Perhaps most infamously, Guzman’s cartel built elaborate tunnels under the U.S. border to transport drugs, said Wifredo Ferrer, the U.S. attorney in Miami.
Initially arrested in 1993, Guzman broke out of a maximum-security Mexican prison the first time in 2001, apparently in a laundry cart. He then spent more than a decade at large, sometimes managing to slip away just as authorities closed in. His defiance of authority made him a folk legend among some Mexicans, and he was immortalized in ballads known as “narco-corridos.”
Recaptured in 2014, Guzman then escaped again, this time through a hole in his prison cell shower. A specially rigged motorcycle on rails whisked him to freedom through a milelong tunnel.
While on the run, he secretly met with actors Sean Penn and Kate del Castillo in a fall 2015 encounter that Penn later chronicled in a Rolling Stone magazine article.
In it, Guzman was unapologetic about his criminal activities, saying he had turned to drug trafficking at age 15 because it was “the only way to have money to buy food, to survive.”
The piece was published shortly after Mexican marines rearrested Guzman in a January 2016 shootout that killed five of his associates and wounded one marine.
Associated Press writers Verena Dobnik, Larry Neumeister and Jake Pearson contributed to this report