In April 2017, Mariel Colón Miró was four months out of law school and looking for a way to earn money while she waited on the results of the New York State bar exam. When she found a job listing on Craigslist for a Spanish-speaking paralegal, she applied immediately. She landed an interview, where she was told the firm needed someone to communicate with a client in a big upcoming case. Once Colón Miró got the job, she finally asked who the defendant was.
“I think I’ve heard that name?” she remembers thinking when the hiring attorney told her whom the firm would be representing. “Then I googled who this person was and I’m like, Holy shit!”
The name she’d googled was Joaquín “El Chapo” Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, the infamous leader of the Sinaloa cartel. Colón Miró would go on to join El Chapo’s trial team as an attorney and impress his seasoned defense attorneys so much that one of them hired her to join Jeffrey Epstein’s defense team before the convicted sex offender committed suicide.
At 26 years old, Colón Miró can say that her first clients were two of the most high profile federal defendants of this century.
Sitting in a coffee shop off the lobby of the Tillary Hotel in downtown Brooklyn last week, Colón Miró had come straight from the federal courthouse a few blocks away after meeting with the family of a new client. “It’s a small conspiracy,” she tells me sheepishly. A federal case built on 30 kilos of cocaine is a trifle when you’re used to El Chapo’s $13-billion enterprise.
Just shy of five feet tall, Colón Miró is even shorter than Guzmán, whose nickname translates to “Shorty.” She grew up in Puerto Rico and studied music business at Loyola University New Orleans. She enrolled in law school in Puerto Rico and transferred to Hofstra after her first year. She has a stud in her nose and sings in the choir at Hillsong, the cool kids’ church that counts Justin Bieber, Chris Pratt, and Kevin Durant among its congregants. Colón Miró is genial and enthusiastic and, more than anything, she is madly loyal to her clients. When I pointed out just how reviled Guzmán and Epstein are, Colón Miró chuckled. Her response was the closest she came to saying a bad word about either of them. “We are all sinners,” she said. “Some of us are sinners that happened to break the law.”
“She was particularly good at building relationships with her clients and being accessible to them,” said Elizabeth M. Nevins, a professor at Hofstra’s Maurice A. Deane School of Law and the attorney-in-charge of the school’s criminal justice clinic. “Her ability to build relationships even extended to adverse witnesses.” Nevins recalled a time when Colón Miró got a call from a complaining witness and proceeded to get the witness talking while she recorded the conversation. “It was basic investigative work, but it was also thinking on the fly in a way that would really advance her client’s case. She’s fearless.”
The first time Colón Miró went to meet Guzmán at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown Manhattan, she was supposed to go with the attorney who had hired her. But the attorney left her wallet on the subway and, without ID, wasn’t allowed to enter the MCC, leaving Colón Miró to go on alone. Colón Miró went into a jail holding some of the most notorious defendants in the country, and introduced herself to the man in charge of a multibillion-dollar drug cartel responsible for untold murders — 33 of which federal prosecutors had pinned directly on him.
Colón Miró said she sat down across from El Chapo and said hello. El Chapo responded by putting his hand against the glass between them. She reciprocated to form a kind of maximum-security handshake. Over the next three hours, Colón Miró and Guzmán chatted about their backgrounds, politics (he asked her about President Trump and Mayor de Blasio), and the upcoming elections in Mexico.
“He is a very likable person,” Colón Miró said. “It was like a click. This is meant to be my job. I felt very comfortable.”
At first, Colón Miró saw Guzmán three to four times a week. Soon, she began visiting the MCC six or seven days a week. She walked him through every piece of discovery and his attorneys’ plans for opening statements, cross-examination, and summation. When Colón Miró was admitted to the bar in September 2018, Guzmán asked her if she would join his defense team as a trial attorney. Colón Miró had a job lined up at the Legal Aid Society, but she didn’t want to abandon a client with whom she’d become very close. She accepted El Chapo’s offer.
As a junior attorney on the team, Colón Miró filed creative motions making arguments that had a strategic impact on the case — but it was her ability to put El Chapo at ease that most impressed the all-star team of defense attorneys Guzmán had assembled for himself.
“Chapo, not being American and familiar with our justice system, didn’t trust everyone who worked on the case,” said Jeffrey Lichtman, one of Guzmán’s attorneys who is best known for winning an acquittal for John Gotti Jr. in 2005. “But he always trusted her.”
Colón Miró saw the effect her visits had on El Chapo, who was kept in solitary confinement and was forbidden to speak with his wife. Aside from one hour of television a day, Colón Miró’s meetings with El Chapo were his only substantial interaction with the outside world.
“MCC is a very inhumane place, especially if you’re in the solitary housing unit,” Colón Miró said. “It is not a sanitary place. You can see rats walking around. It is nasty. Other clients have told me there’s mold on the water faucets, the AC is never clean. You can actually see the dust and mold.”
El Chapo wasn’t allowed any outdoor exercise time, likely on account of his two successful escapes from prison in Mexico. When Colón Miró filed a request to allow him to exercise outside, the government responded by citing a 1981 escape attempt in which an inmate’s accomplices hijacked a tourist helicopter and tried to break him out of the MCC prison yard. The fact that the escape attempt was unsuccessful didn’t seem to play into the judge’s decision, as he denied Colón Miró’s request.
“Mr. Guzmán is strong minded,” she said. “If you’re not strong minded, it is definitely going to ruin you psychologically. It is torture.”
One night in July, El Chapo got a new neighbor. After Epstein was arrested at Teterboro Airport, he was put in a cell three doors down from El Chapo at the MCC — though that arrangement only lasted one night. Not long after Epstein’s arrest, Colón Miró was brought onto his legal team by Marc Fernich, another of Guzmán’s attorneys who took on the Epstein case.
“She doesn’t scare,” said Fernich. “She’s not intimidated by grisly accusations against clients. She deals with them as human beings.”
It wasn’t long before Colón Miró was visiting Epstein at the MCC regularly. She wouldn’t talk about the specifics of her interactions with Epstein except to say that, like El Chapo, she saw him as innocent until proven guilty. “I don’t think that he’s the monster that the press made him out to be, at all.”
According to Fernich, Guzmán insisted Colón Miró work on his appeal. Last week, Fernich and Colón Miró visited him at the supermax prison ADX in Florence, Colorado, known as the “Alcatraz of the Rockies.” She said that El Chapo isn’t adjusting well to life in a supermax. Though he now gets outdoor exercise time, he gets even fewer visits. “I noticed he was sad. Completely different. His demeanor, his eyes. Even his hair — they shaved his head. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been convicted of the most heinous crimes or horrible crimes, I don’t think that anybody deserves to be treated that way.”
In addition to working on Guzmán’s appeal, Colón Miró is helping El Chapo’s wife with her fashion line, “El Chapo Guzmán: JGL,” which will feature hoodies, T-shirts, and glow-in-the-dark cell phone cases emblazoned with Guzmán’s signature.
Three days before Epstein committed suicide, Colón Miró visited him at the MCC and served as a witness to his will. When Bloomberg reported on the will, including Colón Miró’s signature, people began sending her Facebook messages and leaving voicemails. She’d gotten similar messages throughout El Chapo’s trial. They always seemed to end up asking the same question: “How do you sleep at night?”
“I sleep with a clear conscience,” she told me. “If you have a moral dilemma with that, then this profession is not for you. It’s easy to lose that human perspective in this profession. You think that detaching makes it easier to do your job, but it makes it harder for your client. You can’t ever lose that perspective, that empathy, that caring for them. I don’t ever want to lose it. I think that’s what distinguishes me.”