By Dane Schiller
Thursday, September 29, 2011
Big-league Mexican drug traffickers imprisoned in the United States are contending that unnecessarily harsh conditions — locked up alone in ultra-high-security confinement — take a physical and psychological toll and may violate U.S.-Mexico extradition treaties.
The courthouse pleadings for relief come from men who cut their teeth and made their names in a criminal underworld that has carried out unheard of levels of brutality in Mexico, including murder by beheading, mutilation, hanging and massacre.
But at least one U.S. federal judge on Thursday conceded the claims have some merit. He ordered that Jesus Vicente Zambada Niebla, whose father runs the Sinaloa Cartel, a criminal syndicate in which Zambada was a ranking member, should be let out of his cell for outdoor recreation time on a roof top.
As Zambada waits to see if he'll face trial, he has been largely confined to a windowless 10-by-6-foot cell for “18 months of isolation without seeing the sun or breathing fresh air,” contended his lawyers in a request to the judge.
He and others admittedly are part of cartels that for decades have pushed tons of cocaine and marijuana into this country, and they have been sent to a U.S. justice system that is far tougher than that of Mexico.
“The word on the street in the United States is you can't bribe your way out of prison or bribe your way into better living conditions,” said former Houston-based federal prosecutor Mark W. White III. “In other places, it might not be as uncomfortable.”
Such high-profile prisoners have many enemies, and officials have said they are kept in isolation to ensure their security. Zambada, for example, contends he should not be prosecuted because while trafficking, he served as an informant for U.S. agents by giving them the cartel's intelligence on rivals.
Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Traci Billingsly said the length of a prisoner's sentence, as well as any history of violence and escapes are among the factors considered when determining where and how they should be held.
“Supermax confinement is arguably in violation of international standards and numerous international treaties, many of which have been signed by Mexico,” his lawyers said in an appeal that was heard last month. Their argument is based on the premise that Mexico might have refused extradition if officials knew the cruel conditions prisoners would face.
The lawyers further say he is being kept there based on unproven allegations of murder and other crimes in Mexico, not on any misconduct in the United States.
They point to a Federal Bureau of Prisons notice that says Palma was placed in supermax because in Mexico he was involved in numerous acts of extortion, corruption of public officials and murders as well as ordering the slayings of a rival gang member's children in retaliation for the murder of his own wife and children.
Additionally, the notice said that keeping Palma in any prison less than a supermax would pose a threat to safety.
Former Gulf Cartel boss Osiel Cardenas Guillen, who was extradited from Mexico to Houston in 2007 to face trial, was shuttled between a variety of state and federal facilities — always kept away from other prisoners.
Without public explanation earlier this year, Cardenas, who is a citizen of Mexico, was moved from a federal penitentiary in Florida to the same supermax where Palma is held.
In some rare instances, U.S.-style security is being used in Mexico for high-profile prisoners, said Houston lawyer Kent Schaffer, who is representing Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez, a Texan who reputedly rose to the top ranks of a Mexican cartel.
Valdez is under heavy guard and being kept alone as he waits to see if he'll be sent to the United States to face trafficking charges.
He's rarely let out and is only allowed to read the Bible, Schaffer said.
“Personally, I think it is just a matter of time until he gets worn down,” Schaffer said. “You can just imagine the effect it has on somebody being cooped up in there.”
Schaffer, who represented R. Allen Stanford, jailed on charges rooted in a massive investment scandal, said his time in isolation made him almost unrecognizable.
“It was horrible. For the first couple of weeks, he was fine. After that, he was a totally different person, and it all started with solitary,” Schaffer said. “Can you imagine what it'd be like to be locked up all day like that for weeks or months or years?”
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