Judge Won't Guarantee Payment for El Chapo's Private Lawyer

Image: Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman
Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted to a helicopter in handcuffs by Mexican navy marines at a navy hanger in Mexico City on Feb. 22, 2014.Eduardo Verdugo / AP file

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By Morgan Radford and Tracy Connor

The drug lord known as El Chapo can hire a high-profile lawyer, but the judge overseeing his case won't guarantee he gets paid.

Joaquin Guzman, who has been represented by public defenders, wants private attorney Jeffrey Lichtman to take over. But Guzman's assets are frozen, and there's a risk that the government could seize any legal fees he pays, claiming they're tainted by drug money.

"He's completely locked down so how does he pay us?" Lichtman told NBC News. "He can't just go to his checkbook in his jail cell and say, 'Here's a check, you're hired.'"

At a hearing on Monday, U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan said he wouldn't pressure the government to keep its hands off the cash. The accused Mexican cartel leader will instead be allowed to meet with a family member for the first time on Thursday to discuss how to pay the lawyer.

Cogan warned that if Guzman wants to change attorneys, he needs to do it soon because he won't delay the trial, which is scheduled to start in April and could put Guzman behind bars for the rest of his life.

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"It's very difficult to be ready for an April trial date when we can't come into the case because he's not even be able to meet with his family to arrange our fee," a frustrated Lichtman said outside court, adding that he still hoped something could be worked out.

"This is still America. The man deserves not only his choice of counsel, but also a fair trial," he said.

Guzman was extradited to the U.S. in January, a year after he was recaptured following a spectacular 2015 tunnel escape from a Mexican prison. He's charged with running a massive and murderous drug-trafficking operation that helped fuel an American drug epidemic.

He's being held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, except for meetings with his lawyers. When he arrived in the courtroom on Monday, he waved to wife Emma Coronel, who married him in 2007 while he was on the lam after his 2001 prison escape in a laundry cart.

The wife of "El Chapo", Emma Coronel Aispuro, will get to meet with him Thursday.Don Emmert / AFP/Getty Images

During the brief hearing, he looked frequently at the 27-year-old former beauty queen, their twin daughters and other supporters sitting in the second row, emotion crossing his face at times.

Lichtman said that in the last seven months, Guzman has not been allowed to meet with any relatives, including his wife and children, and can't even talk to jail guards because he doesn't speak any English.

The lawyer — whose past clients include terrorists and John "Junior" Gotti, the son of a mob boss — said the security arrangements were the most stringent he's seen in 27 years of practice.

"You walk to the courthouse and there are helicopters buzzing outside and there are men with automatic weapons with helmets on and it's just for a little guy," Lichtman told NBC News.

Related: 'El Chapo' Still in Solitary But Can Write to Wife

"This is a calm, serene guy so the whole thing is bizarre to us, every last aspect of this case," he said, adding that Guzman's reputation didn't match the man he met in jail.

"He's calm, he's very funny, I mean I had him laughing today. He had tears rolling down his face," he said. "This is a guy who's supposed to be a mass murderer. You would never think it if you met him."