‘El Chapo’ is just the fall guy, Joaquin Guzman’s lawyer tells jurors in drug trial

In this courtroom sketch, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, center, listens as a prosecutor delivers closing arguments Wednesday during his federal trial in New York. The defense made its closing arguments Thursday.
(Elizabeth Williams / Associated Press)
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The litany of cooperating witnesses against Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was a collection of scum, utter animals and lunatics, the Mexican drug lord’s lawyer told jurors Thursday.

And still, he said, they were something worse: liars.

With great dramatic flourish, defense lawyer Jeffrey Lichtman gave a closing argument that lasted more than four hours, trying, one last time, to cast doubt on the monumental drug-trafficking case against his client.

Lichtman’s narrative, one defense lawyers have pushed throughout the trial, was clear: The sweeping evidence prosecutors presented over 11 weeks was based on lies, and liars.


The U.S. government was willing to do anything to take down the infamous Guzman, he argued. Another man was the real mastermind of the violent, multibillion-dollar Sinaloa cartel, Lichtman said; Guzman was just the fall guy.

And the 14 cooperating witnesses — most former cartel higher-ups — were nothing more than a rogue’s gallery of brutal drug dealers who had clear incentive to lie: If they gave the government what it wanted, they could get out of prison.

“If you don’t believe all cooperators, you can’t convict Mr. Guzman,” Lichtman said, his voice booming.

And how, on Earth, could they believe these witnesses? Are these people they’d buy a used car from? Would they let them babysit their children? he asked.

“Of course not!” he said. The car would break down, and “your kid would be sold for a kilo of cocaine.”

Lichtman seemed intent on entertaining the jurors, who’ve sat through months of details about hundreds of drug deals and warring narcotics gangs. He did manage to get some smiles, including when he became animated while mocking a cooperating witness, “a bottomless pit of immorality” who had undergone plastic surgery. “He butchered his face — and his ears! — to avoid getting caught.”


“That’s what a real drug kingpin looks like; that guy is scary,” he said.

The defense argument followed the prosecution’s closing on Wednesday, when U.S. Assistant Atty. Andrea Goldbarg said the “avalanche of evidence” left no doubt as to who the boss of the cartel was: the man with the escape tunnels and diamond-encrusted pistol, Guzman.

The 61-year-old Guzman faces 10 criminal counts. He’s accused of selling hundreds of tons of cocaine, meth, heroin and marijuana; conspiring to murder a slew of rivals; and running one of the world’s largest international drug networks.The jury is expected to begin deliberating Monday.

Lichtman asked jurors: If the prosecution’s “evidence is so good, why do they have to put these liars on the stand?”

The government’s real strategy, he said, was counting on the jury having “blind faith” in all their evidence. “We’re the government, what we say counts! Come on, let’s go home — convict him!” he mocked.

Of course, he said, the jurors were too smart for that. They know the government can be corrupt, even the American government — and they’ve seen during the trial how corruption fueled the drug trade from Mexico, he said.

He emphasized over and over that the drug dealers and murderers that corroborated evidence were getting “crazy sweetheart” deals from the U.S. government. “Spoiler alert,” he said in a whisper: They will all be set free from jail for helping to capture the mythic “El Chapo.”


“Did you even know they give these deals for such bad people? Is that the country you thought you were living in?” he asked.

“What do you think would happen if you broke the rules? You better hope you have a Chapo to turn on.”

And there was one man who’d been especially lucky from turning on Guzman, Lichtman said, a man he called the “puppeteer” — Guzman’s purported partner, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.

Zambada’s closest associates, including his sons, have been arrested — and one of them testified at Guzman’s trial — but Zambada manages to still be on the loose, he said.

“All these years, he’s the biggest drug trafficker in Mexico. They have his phone numbers, his coordinates, and they can’t find him,” Lichtman said.

Guzman was “the rabbit that Mexican authorities have been chasing to Mayo’s benefit for years.” In reality, Lichtman argued, Guzman was in debt and far from the cartel’s leader, but because of the prison breaks he was “all over the news,” while Zambada operated “in the shadows.”


The defense attorney offered this theory about a witness’ testimony that Guzman had paid a $100-million bribe to then-Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto: It was Zambada who paid that money. The less famous cartel boss bribed everyone from “beat cops to presidents” — and that’s why he’s never been arrested, Lichtman said.

Why would Guzman, who was in hiding and in debt, he asked, pay money he didn’t have to a president who would end up having him arrested and sent to the U.S. to face trial?

At one point, he walked over the Guzman and implored jurors to remember that the defendant was “a human being” and he “has feelings too.”

With his voice breaking, he told jurors: “You don’t have to give into the myth of El Chapo and just convict.”

Assistant U.S. Atty. Amanda Liskamm gave the prosecution’s rebuttal, telling the jury: “In order to believe the defense, you have to believe that the defendant is the unluckiest man in the world. You have to believe that the 14 cooperating witnesses from all different periods of the Sinaloa cartel all got together to come up with this story.

“The defense is pointing fingers everywhere but where the evidence points — to the defendant.”