NEW YORK (CBS SF) — A U.S. judge on Friday set an April 2018 trial date for Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman on charges he oversaw a multibillion-dollar international drug trafficking operation responsible for murders and kidnappings.

Guzman appeared in federal court in Brooklyn, New York, at a hearing to determine whether he can be represented by federal public defenders. He spent much of the hearing looking across the room to his 27-year-old wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, who was seated in the second row of the packed courtroom.

His public defenders have complained to the judge that their client’s restrictive prison conditions are turning him into a “zombie.” They also asked the judge to allow them to share the same space as Guzman in the correctional facility where he is being held. The lawyers are currently only allowed to speak to Guzman through a plexiglass screen.

Guzman appeared alert on Friday, answering a judge’s questions through an interpreter and listening through headphones. Security was tight at the hearing, with four U.S. Marshals surrounding Guzman.

The 59-year-old defendant lost a bid Thursday to relax the terms of his confinement at a lower Manhattan lockup when U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan concluded that solitary confinement was appropriate.

Cogan said the U.S. government was justified in applying tough jail conditions on a man famous for escaping from Mexican prison twice, including once through a mile-long tunnel stretching from the shower in his cell. But Cogan relaxed the restrictions known as Special Administrative Measures enough for Guzman to communicate with his wife through written questions and answers.

His lawyers said in a statement that it was “devastating” for Guzman and his wife that they will not be allowed jail visits.

Guzman was brought to the U.S. in January to face charges that he oversaw a multibillion-dollar international drug trafficking operation. He has pleaded not guilty.

He has remained in a 20-by-12-foot cell for 23 hours a day in a wing of the Metropolitan Correctional Center that often is used to house high-risk inmates, including terrorists.

The U.S. government has said severe restrictions are necessary for Guzman in part because he used coded messages, bribes and other means to continue operating his drug empire from behind bars and arrange escapes.

Guzman faces life in prison. The death penalty was waived as part of the extradition agreement.

The judge set a temporary trial date of April 2018, prompting Guzman’s lawyers to laugh in protest that they would need more time to prepare for a trial expected to take two to three months.

© 2017 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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