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World & Nation

‘El Chapo’ lawyers aim to portray Joaquin Guzman as the victim of a vast conspiracy

Prosecutors rest their case in trial of El Chapo
Mexican drug lord Joaquin Guzman, known as “El Chapo,” is extradited to the United States on Jan. 19, 2017. He faces life in prison.
(Mexican Attorney General’s Office )

Federal prosecutors have spent months painting Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman as the most ruthless, brilliant and powerful trafficker who ever lived, marshaling reels of clandestine tape, mountains of interdicted drugs and a jury box worth of convicted felons to try the man they say was the Napoleon of a vast narco-empire.

On Tuesday, Guzman’s team mounted its defense. It was done before lunch.

“With that, the defense rests,” attorney Jeffrey Lichtman told the court about 10 a.m. Tuesday, concluding his brief and largely redundant examination of his team’s lone witness.

In his scant half-hour on the stand, FBI Agent Paul Roberts clarified the shifting testimony weeks earlier from narco scion Jorge Cifuentes: that a U.S. naval intelligence officer had visited him in prison in 2010 and had shared a USB drive filled with evidence against him and Guzman.

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Lichtman also submitted an FBI affidavit bolstering his team’s claim that Guzman was $20 million in debt from 2007 to 2013, which made the defendant sound less like a criminal mastermind than a flashy, broke poser.

Though brief, Guzman’s blink-and-you-missed-it defense was in line with the strategy his lawyers have pursued since November, leveraging the prosecution’s mammoth and at-times-unwieldy case against it to portray their client as the victim of a widespread conspiracy, the David to a corrupt, multi-state Goliath.

“An unbelievable amount of resources have gone into putting the case together — it’s a freak show,” said Joaquin Perez, a Miami attorney who has been following the trial and has fought other drug trafficking cases in federal court. “It’s almost like a test of the U.S. credibility as far as prosecuting drug traffickers.”

Rather than dispute the Justice Department’s scores of witnesses or its handcarts of evidence, the defense repeatedly sought to pit Guzman against the system that indicted him, the cartoon villains who have taken the stand at the behest of the government, and the idea of “El Chapo” himself.

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“It sounds like the defense lawyers are doing the best they can with less than ideal facts,” said Daniel Medwed, a professor of criminal law at Northeastern University. “Being an effective trial lawyer is managing the rules of evidence but also managing the narrative, so that you create sympathy and support for your side in a way that’s almost complementary to the evidence.”

Among the themes the defense lawyers have teased out on cross-examination: that Guzman’s longtime partner and purported successor Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada is, in fact, the leader of the Sinaloa cartel; that their client is a showboat who lived off his legend while racking up millions in debt; that the Mexican government and the American justice system are both so hopelessly corrupt they would seek to convict a figurehead and leave the true powers untouched; and that the witnesses they’ve collected to do it are each more evil than the man standing trial.

Those arguments could be tangled, and the thread sometimes snagged, as when Cifuentes’ brother and Sinaloa cartel secretary Alex Cifuentes testified, at the behest of the defense, that he arranged a $100-million bribe to former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto — on Guzman’s order.

But the leitmotif was clear: The Chapo on trial was a myth, not the man at the defense table.

Prosecutors went after Guzman because he was “all over the news,” while the aging and powerful Zambada remained “in the shadows,” Guzman attorney Eduardo Balarezo insisted while cross-examining Zambada’s son Vicente.

“There was a campaign against” Guzman, Vicente Zambada agreed, though on redirect he assured the court that Guzman “is a leader — another leader like my father.”

The prosecution’s greatest strength has been the number of powerful cooperating witnesses whose months of detailed testimony laid bare the inner workings of a multibillion-dollar drug trade spanning decades and continents. They all put Guzman at the center.

But many of the same men implicating the defendant had themselves pleaded guilty to gruesome crimes, including drug trafficking, money laundering and murder. Almost all of them said they expect to see their sentences reduced in exchange for their testimony; most said they’ve been promised visas for themselves and their family members to remain in the United States.

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“I think recruiting all of these high-end drug traffickers is frankly a parade of devils,” Perez said. “That’s your argument: All of these people are a bunch of liars recruited to testify against someone who is perceived to be more culpable than them.”

A few even openly sought vengeance.

“I started hating Mr. Guzman when he betrayed me and sent someone to try to kill me,” former Sinaloa cartel lieutenant Miguel Angel “El Gordo” Martinez admitted after telling jurors how Guzman had repaid his years of loyal service with a series of bloody attempts on his life, including three stabbings and a grenade attack.

“You lied because you hate that man right there, correct?” Guzman’s attorney William Purpura pressed, pointing to his client. “You lied to this jury because you hate this man?”

“I hate Mr. Guzman, yes,” Martinez replied, though he insisted he had not lied about the defendant.

Jorge Cifuentes was even more blunt, capping his pugnacious testimony with a dramatic gesture, miming an embrace in front of the defense table; Guzman’s lawyers said it was an obscene, aggressive message to their client.

Medwed and others said the defense could win a so-called compromise verdict if they used such moments to discredit enough the government’s witnesses.

Even the trash bags of heroin and cocaine unboxed for the jury could start to seem less like evidence than biblical archaeology if what connects them to Guzman is the word of a convicted killer such as Colombian cartel boss Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia, who could walk free in little more than a decade thanks to his cooperation in court, the experts said.

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But Brian Klein, a partner at Baker Marquart and an adjunct professor at USC’s Gould School of Law, warned that such victories might prove ephemeral.

“As a criminal defense attorney you can win a lot of battles during a trial, score a lot of points in front of the jury, but still lose the war,” he said.

Perez, the Miami lawyer, was more blunt.

“If you are a respected politician or a baseball player or an actor — reasonable doubt is for those people,” the attorney said. “It’s a fiction that only works when the case is a close one. But all other things being equal, jurors always believe what the prosecutors tell them.”

All of which raises the question: If life in prison is a foregone conclusion, why go to trial at all?

“The alternative is to plead guilty and get life anyway,” Perez said. “He probably wanted to be entertained.”

Plagianos and Sharp are special correspondents.


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