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Officials Fear El Chapo Is Planning His Escape From Manhattan's Metropolitan Correctional Center

Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, second from the right, giving a "thumbs up" in a courtroom sketch from the February 2019 trial.
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Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, second from the right, giving a "thumbs up" in a courtroom sketch from the February 2019 trial. Elizabeth Williams/AP/Shutterstock

Authorities are concerned that the former Sinaloa head honcho Joaquín Guzmán—known colloquially as "El Chapo"—is scheming his escape from the Metropolitan Correctional Center, following a request from his lawyers for several hours of exercise a week.

According to The Washington Post, Guzmán's lawyers filed requests to U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan for two hours of outdoor access, as well as access to the commissary and the ability to buy earplugs and water. In their letter, they said that his current "deprivation of sunlight and fresh air" was causing "psychological scarring" and violated "the 8th Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment as well as the fundamental norms of human decency."

The Metropolitan Correctional Center has been described as a "gulag" by Jeanne Theoharis, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College, who told Gothamist last year, "If I described these conditions to you—filthy, freezing, no natural light, isolation so extreme that you’re punished for speaking through the walls, absurd rules like prisoners not getting to see the newspapers unless they’re 30 days old, secrecy so deep that people are force-fed and lawyers can be punished for describing the conditions their clients are experiencing—you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was Iran or Russia."

However, law enforcement officials see the request as the first step in Guzmán's attempt to escape, given his history of fleeing prisons. In 2001, he got out of Puente Grande, a maximum-security prison in Mexico, with the aid of guards and supposedly through a laundry truck. Then, in 2015, Guzmán wriggled out of a tunnel located under his cell's shower. And it wasn't any ordinary tunnel: The mile-long tunnel—with ceilings just high enough for Guzmán's diminutive stature—had ventilation, lighting and a getaway motorcycle:

Citing government documents, the Washington Post reports that authorities saw the exercise request as "part of a ploy to escape from prison or silence cooperating witnesses." A prosecutor also argued against the commissary items, stating that in in the hands of high-risk inmates, they could very well be used as weapons.

The MCC has an outdoor yard, but nearly 40 years ago, associates of a convicted narcotics dealer hijacked a sightseeing helicopter in an attempt to extract him from the roof of the jail. The NY Times reported at the time, "The daring, intricately timed escape plot failed, authorities said, because the hijackers were unable to cut through a heavy wire screen covering the roof."

In February, a Brooklyn jury found Guzmán guilty of murder conspiracy, money laundering, firearms possession, and, for years, spearheading over 200 tons of cocaine into the United States. Guzmán will be sentenced in late June, where he's looking at several life sentences.

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