Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, the world's most notorious drug lord, has been having trouble sleeping.

The lights in his prison cell are on around the clock. The surveillance video and prison staff watch him 24/7. If a dozing Guzmán even inadvertently covers his face or crosses his arms, prison guards rouse him, according to his lead defence lawyer, José Refugio Rodríguez.

"The conditions that he's being held in are very drastic. He's a victim of cruel and inhumane treatment well below the minimum standards established by the United Nations," Rodríguez said in an interview. "This is practically torture."

Guzmán has escaped federal prison twice during his infamous drug-running career and is now awaiting extradition to the United States. As Mexico's most important prisoner, authorities want to impose the tightest possible surveillance lest they risk another humiliating jailbreak. Guzmán's legal team has seized on these allegedly poor conditions to try to win a bit more freedom for their client as the case drags on.


Guzmán has been held in solitary confinement since early May, when he was transferred from a prison outside Mexico City to the federal lock-up in Ciudad Juarez along the border with Texas. He lives in an air-conditioned 80-square-foot cell that has a bed and a toilet, inside a new high-security wing that contains about 30 cells. Three times a week, Rodríguez said, Guzmán is allowed out onto a patio for one hour of fresh air.

"He's depressed," Rodríguez said.

Eduardo Guerrero Duran, the head of Mexico's prison system, denied that Guzmán is suffering or in poor health. He said in an interview that Guzmán has access to relatives, lawyers, fresh air, books, chess, television, and he can wear an eye mask for sleeping, which affords him "perfect darkness". Although prison protocol does not allow Guzmán to cover his whole face, he is allowed to cross his arms and move around while sleeping.

"This person has not been segregated, nor tortured, nor have we violated any of his rights," Duran added. "We are making sure we comply with the law."

On June 1, Guzmán's wife, the former beauty queen Emma Coronel Aispuro, met the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington to discuss her husband's case. A spokeswoman for the commission, Maria Isabel Rivero, said the content of Coronel's discussions were confidential, but Coronel has publicly complained about sleep deprivation and allegedly harsh conditions suffered by her husband.

According to Guerrero, in the 65 days that Guzmán has been in the Juarez prison, he has gone out to the patio 27 times, for stints lasting between 45 and 75 minutes, depending on the weather. He has received nine visits by his lawyers. He has spoken to his family on the phone four times and seen them in person an additional 13 times. Guzmán is allowed an hour of television per day.

Twice, Guzmán has had "intimate" visits from a "concubine," Guerrero said.

Guzmán's health has also been in order. He has been checked by doctors or nurses on 79 occasions. Guzmán weighs the same amount as he did the day he arrived.

Guzmán faces a variety of charges relating to drug trafficking and organized crime in US courts, including in New York, California and Texas. Mexico's Foreign Ministry approved his extradition after US authorities said they would not pursue the death penalty.

But late last month, two Mexican judges halted that process while his appeals are reviewed, which is a typical step in extradition proceedings. Guzmán's lawyers argued that the statute of limitations had expired on some charges and that some accusations were based on hearsay.

Rodríguez, who coordinates a team of about 12 lawyers, four of whom oversee the extradition defense, estimated that this round of appeals might take six months and that the whole process could last up to three years or more. If a judge decides to proceed with the extradition, Guzmán can appeal yet again to a council of judges.

Others involved think it's possible Guzmán could be shipped to the United States before the end of the year.