Prosecutors ask judge to sanction 'El Chapo' Guzman's lawyers over cellphone use by accused drug lord's wife in courthouse

Key Points
  • Federal prosecutors ask a judge to sanction defense lawyers for accused Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
  • Prosecutors say punishment is warranted because of the alleged prohibited use of a cellphone by the defendant's former beauty queen wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, in a Brooklyn federal courthouse.
  • El Chapo, who is standing trial in New York, has previously twice escaped custody in Mexico.
Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin Guzman Loera aka 'el Chapo Guzman' (C), is escorted by marines as he is presented to the press on February 22, 2014 in Mexico City.
Alfredo Estrella | AFP | Getty Images

Federal prosecutors on Tuesday asked a judge to sanction lawyers for accused Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman because his wife allegedly used a cellphone in the New York courthouse where he is on trial.

Guzman has previously twice escaped custody in Mexico.

Prosecutors claimed in a letter that an unnamed person or persons "appear to have used cellular telephones in concert with an attorney visit to the defendant following two trial days last week to facilitate unauthorized and [under special security rules] impermissible contact between" Guzman and his wife, former beauty queen Emma Coronel Aispuro.

U.S. Marshals at the federal courthouse in Brooklyn, in reviewing security footage from Nov. 19, "observed Ms. Coronel using a cellular telephone inside the courthouse," said the letter to U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan. That was a day after courthouse staff "had observed Ms. Coronel using a cellular telephone inside the courthouse."

Prosecutors noted they had mentioned the use of that phone during sidebar conferences with Cogan and defense lawyers at Guzman's trial Monday, out of earshot of the jury in the case.

Cellphones are not allowed to be brought into that courthouse beyond the security screening area by individuals who are not lawyers or are authorized to carry electronic communication and recording devices.

Cogan earlier this month had rejected a request by lawyers for the escape-prone Guzman to allow him to give Coronel a brief hug before his trial began.

Emma Coronel Aispuro, wife of accused Mexican drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman, leaves after a pre-trial hearing at Brooklyn Federal Courthouse in the Brooklyn borough of New York, on August 14, 2018. 
Timothy A. Clary | AFP | Getty Images

In that ruling, Cogan said he was sympathetic to the request.

But the judge noted that he had previously upheld the government's "restriction that prohibits defendant from communicating with or having any physical contact with his wife" in order to prevent Guzman "from coordinating any escape from prison or directing any attack on individuals who might be cooperating with the Government."

The 15-page letter that was publicly released Tuesday is heavily redacted, with large sections blacked out that presumably have more details of the allegations about the cellphone usage.

Prosecutors said they deferred to Cogan on what sanctions to impose on Guzman's lawyers, but at minimum wanted something that was blacked out from public view.

There are a series of so-called special administrative measures in place for Guzman's case.

"The SAMs authorized in this case impose various restrictions on the defendant and defense counsel, based on a determination by the Attorney General that communications and contacts between the defendant and other persons could result in death or serious bodily injury to others," said the letter to the judge from prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York.

"The SAMs also restrict telephone calls with the defendant. In particular, the SAMs provide that: For all non-legally privileged telephone calls or communications, no telephone call/communication, or portion thereof: i. Is to be overheard by a third party. ii. Is to be patched through, or in any manner forwarded or transmitted, to a third party. iii. Shall be divulged in any manner to a third party," the letter said.

CNBC has requested comment from Guzman's lawyer, Jeffrey Lichtman.

Guzman has pleaded not guilty in the case, where he is accused of using his Sinaloa cartel to export tons of drugs into the U.S. He also is accused of using violence to maintain control over the business.

Guzman escaped in Mexico in 2001 after being indicted in San Diego. He was apprehended again in 2014, but then escaped a year later through a tunnel constructed under the maximum security prison where he was being held. He was captured again in 2016 and then extradited to the United States.