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US judge orders ‘El Chapo’ to appear by video link

New York (AFP) – A US judge has ordered that Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman appear by video link at his next court hearing to avoid unnecessary transfers for one of the world’s most notorious criminals.

The 59-year-old Guzman, accused of running one of the world’s biggest ever drug empires, was extradited to the United States on January 19 after twice escaping from prison in Mexico.

US media say he is being incarcerated at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in New York, a two-mile (three-kilometer) drive from the federal court house across the river in Brooklyn.

Judge Brian Cogan ordered that Guzman appear by video link on February 3 because the scheduled hearing is expected to be “brief and non-substantive” in order to “minimize disruption from physical transportation.”

Prosecutors and the defense have until January 30 to lodge an appeal.

Guzman pleaded not guilty in person to a raft of firearms, drug trafficking and conspiracy charges during a brief 10-minute hearing last Friday.

A string of high-profile defendants have been housed at the MCC in the past, including Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the 1993 World Trade Center bomber. Despite stringent security a few inmates have managed to escape.

The New York Times says in 1981, one inmate was nearly plucked off the rooftop by a hijacked helicopter and in 1990, two disappeared out of a second-story window, lowering themselves to freedom with an electrical cord.

Colombian citizen Mauricio Menendez, 59, charged with cocaine and money laundering, fled in 1990 and remains on the Marshals Service most wanted list.

US prosecutors say Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel is responsible for distributing hundreds of thousands of kilos of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana throughout the United States, reaping billions of dollars in profits.

His extradition follows a Hollywood-worthy cat-and-mouse game between authorities and the slippery drug lord, who twice made spectacular escapes from prison in Mexico — in a laundry cart in 2001 and through a tunnel under his shower in 2015.

In New York he has been slapped with a sweeping 17-count indictment that includes criminal enterprise from 1989 to 2014, drug importation, illegal use of firearms and money laundering conspiracy.

If found guilty at trial, Guzman stands to spend the rest of his life in a maximum security US prison. Prosecutors are also seeking to obtain a $14 billion criminal forfeiture order against him.

The drug baron, whom US prosecutors said was known to carry a gold-plated AK-47 assault rifle and a diamond-encrusted handgun, had campaigned against extradition since being recaptured last January following his second jailbreak.

Authorities said they tracked him down after he held a clandestine meeting with US actor Sean Penn and Mexican-American actress Kate del Castillo, with whom he exchanged flirtatious text messages.

US authorities have stressed he will have no means of escaping a US prison.

“I assure you no tunnel will be built leading into his bathroom,” Homeland Security Special Agent Angel Melendez told reporters last week.

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