Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman has landed in a place were he cannot escape and cannot do business, a dreaded stronghold in lower Manhattan that some call the “Guantanamo” of New York.
The Mexican drug kingpin is being held at least for now in the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a featureless slab of mushroom-colored concrete just south of Chinatown. The detention center has in the past been the temporary home of mafia dons and terrorists, Ponzi schemers and drugs lords.
“There are no cellphones. He has to know it is over,” said Jamie Hunt, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration special agent in charge of the investigation. “He is in a U.S. prison now. He is not going to be able to communicate.”
Less than 24 hours after his extradition from Mexico, Guzman appeared Friday in a federal courtroom in Brooklyn to be arraigned on a 17-count indictment on charges of drug trafficking, conspiracy to murder and firearms violations. Represented by a government-appointed federal defender, Michelle Gelernt, he pleaded not guilty to all charges.
A far cry from the mythical proportions he has assumed in popular culture, Guzman, 59, looked short and paunchy, a subdued man who has been cornered. He appeared to speak no English and used an interpreter. Answering questions about whether he understood his rights posed by U.S. Magistrate Judge James Orenstein, Guzman spoke softly saying nothing more than “Si, senor.”
In a surprise move on the eve of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, the Mexican government extradited Guzman to the United States — apparently a parting gift to the Obama administration. He arrived late Thursday night at an airport in Long Island and was driven in a 13-car motorcade to the Metropolitan Correctional Center.
“As he deplaned, this most notorious criminal of modern times, as you looked into his eyes you could see the surprise; you could see the shock. To a certain extent, you could actually see the fear as the realization started to kick in that he is about to face American justice,” said Homeland Security Special Agent in Charge Angel M. Melendez.
“He is about to face American justice in a city whose foundation is bedrock as strong as the will of the citizens that live in this city, and I assure you no tunnel will be built leading to the bathroom,” he added.
Guzman has twice broken out of Mexican prisons — once in a laundry basket and another time in a tunnel that was dug by associates under his shower— so there are concerns about whether New York will prove up to the task of confining the Houdini of drug lords.
The Metropolitan Correction Center might be just such a place. Built in 1975, the 12-story structure has slit-shaped windows with frosted glass so prisoners cannot peer out at the busy city around them. A tunnel allows prisoners to be transported to an adjacent federal courthouse without ever seeing the light of day, although it is unclear whether Guzman will pass through that tunnel since he is being tried in Brooklyn, not Manhattan.
Numerous high-profile individuals have been held at MCC New York during court proceedings, including Gambino crime family bosses John Gotti and Jackie D’Amico, drug kingpin Frank Lucas, Ponzi scheme mastermind Bernard Madoff, terrorists Omar Abdel-Rahman and Ramzi Yousef, and weapons trafficker Viktor Bout.
The facility holds about 700 prisoners who are awaiting trial.
According to lawyers, Guzman is mostly likely to be housed in the notorious 10 South Wing, the segregated housing unit for prisoners who need to be separated from the general population.