Jorge Cifuentes and the other drug traffickers turned witnesses in the ongoing trial of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman have much to gain by cooperating with the U.S. government and testifying against the Mexican kingpin.
Prosecutors could petition the court to go easier on Cifuentes when he is finally sentenced for his 2015 guilty pleas to charges of drug trafficking and money laundering. And under his cooperation agreement, he can never be charged with other past crimes, including the many slayings he has admitted to ordering as a member of a prominent family in the Colombian drug trade.
But the most coveted prize is the elusive S visa, which provides temporary legal status to convicted terrorists and drug lords and their families and sets them on the path to green cards and eventually U.S. citizenship.
A powerful tool in the prosecution of some of the world’s most dangerous criminals, it is often the main incentive a foreigner has to wear a wire, participate in a sting operation or step onto the witness stand.
But the visa also remains shrouded in mystery. Cooperators usually must take prosecutors and other law enforcement authorities at their word, and immigration attorneys say those promises often fail to materialize.
“I did ask them for the favor of helping bring my family to the U.S.,” Cifuentes testified last week in New York. “I really don’t have a lot of hope that they will do it.”
S visas are so rare that in online forums of immigration attorneys they are routinely referred to as unicorns.
“Everybody knows about them, everybody’s heard of them, but no one’s ever seen one,” said Ahmed Hassan, a Washington-based immigration attorney who has represented clients in several S visa fights but has never succeeded. “The elusive unicorn slipped my grasp.”
He explained his strategy for breaking that losing streak: “I have to cavort with a lot more high-level unsavory fellows.”
Just 250 S visas are made available annually, and only a handful of those are ever issued. Officials were unable to provide statistics.
By comparison, the government issues up to 10,000 U visas each year to crime victims who cooperate with law enforcement.
“I think of the S visa as the snitch visa,” said Georgia immigration lawyer Tracie Klinke. “If a client’s been asked to cooperate, we always want to have a plan B, because plan A, the S visa, probably won’t pan out.”
Not even the federal agencies that deal with justice and immigration were able to provide clear answers about how the visas work.
A Justice Department spokesman said that the responsibility for issuing them rests with Homeland Security — specifically its investigations division and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
But an ICE spokesman said the job fell to another division of Homeland Security — U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, whose website indeed includes a fact sheet about the S visa suggesting it’s the ultimate arbiter.
Bringing things full circle, however, a spokesman there said the visas were the purview of the Justice Department.
In any case, the bar for receiving one remains extraordinarily high.
Klinke told the story of a client who wore a wire for ICE in an attempt to bust the man who'd helped him get a fraudulent work visa. The S visa he was promised never came through, and the man was deported.
The outcome was the same for two of Hassan’s clients — a club bouncer from Mexico who worked undercover to bust high-level cocaine dealers and a Ghanaian drug mule who helped bring down a heroin ring.
“The federal government will chew them up and spit them out,” Hassan said. “I’ve tried a number of other times.”
Immigration attorneys whose clients have obtained S visas say that the most hardened criminals have the best chances, because they are most likely to lead investigators and prosecutors to the biggest targets.
“The first time I mentioned the possibility of an S visa to an ICE agent with whom I had a good rapport, he said, ‘Oh, so your client knows where Bin Laden is?’” recalled New Hampshire immigration attorney Ron Abramson, who recently won his first S visa case. “The whole paradox in only benefiting criminals is that you don’t possess valuable information unless you’re involved in some pretty serious stuff yourself.”
As one of the world's most notorious criminals, Guzman certainly qualifies as a big target. The former head of the Sinaloa cartel, he was extradited to the United States on charges of drug trafficking, conspiracy to commit murder and weapons violations. His trial began in early November and was originally projected to stretch until March, though the judge recently said he believes it could wrap up in mid-February.
Guzman's lead defense attorney, Eduardo Balarezo, said he has little doubt the government will make good on its promises of S visas.
“It’s not a unicorn,” he said, adding that he’d just recently secured one for a client. “If you're cooperating, they’ll give it to you. Especially on a case like this.”
The visas have featured prominently in the defense strategy. In his opening statements, defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman warned jurors that the killers and drug traffickers who testified in court would live "among you" soon.
The lawyers also taunted witness Miguel Angel "El Gordo" Martinez, once a deputy to Guzman, over the fact that he sat on the stand with his visa just out of reach.
“Up to this date, have you received your S visa?” defense attorney William Purpura asked.
“No,” replied Martinez, who testified that Guzman tried to have him assassinated four separate times while he was in Mexican prison.
Purpura suggested that Martinez was lying to improve his chances.
Prosecutors have sought to neutralize that argument by eliciting testimony about how much some witnesses are risking.
"Why is it important for you and your family to stay in the United States?" U.S. attorney Gina Parlovecchio asked German Rosero, a former public defender in Colombia who became a drug trafficker and is now waiting for an S visa.
"It's the only safe place I would have to live," the witness said.