El Chapo’s Defense: He Was Framed by Vast Conspiracy
Lawyers for Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the infamous drug lord known as El Chapo, claimed on Tuesday that for decades their client had been framed by a vast conspiracy of plotters, including his chief lieutenant in the Sinaloa cartel, American drug agents, and the last two presidents of Mexico.
The defense’s claim was an unexpected start to Mr. Guzmán’s drug conspiracy trial, which after several delays on Tuesday began under tight security in Federal District Court in Brooklyn.
During an impassioned opening statement, one of Mr. Guzmán’s lawyers, Jeffrey Lichtman, said that the real mastermind of the cartel, which Mr. Guzmán has been accused of running for decades, was his longtime partner Ismael Zambada Garcia.
Describing Mr. Guzmán as no more than “a scapegoat,” Mr. Lichtman argued that Mr. Zambada, known as El Mayo, had been the one to oversee 20 years of drug shipments into the United States, and who repeatedly paid off — to the tune of millions of dollars — a “completely corrupt” Mexican government, including top officials like President Enrique Peña Nieto and his predecessor, Felipe Calderón.
“The world is focusing on this mythical El Chapo creature,” Mr. Lichtman said. “The world is not focusing on Mayo Zambada.”
Mr. Zambada, 70, has long been one of Mr. Guzman’s closest deputies and is believed to be still at large in Mexico. Though he has been never been arrested, he was named as a defendant in the same 2009 indictment that prosecutors in New York used to charge Mr. Guzman. Both Mr. Zambada’s son, Vicente Zambada-Niebla, and his brother, Jesus Reynaldo Zambada García, are in custody in the United States and may appear as witnesses at the trial.
Mr. Calderón and Mr. Peña Nieto, the former Mexican presidents, put out statements on Twitter saying Mr. Lichtman’s claims were “absolutely false.”
Almost immediately after the defense offered its conspiracy theory, Judge Brian M. Cogan excused the jury for the day. In their absence, the judge cautioned Mr. Lichtman against making statements that might not be supported by evidence or that the judge’s own rulings could preclude as inadmissible. Judge Cogan ordered both the defense and prosecution to submit written briefings on the claims, indicating that the main thrust of Mr. Guzmán’s defense will now face judicial scrutiny even though the trial is underway.
In the nearly two years that Mr. Guzmán, 59, has been in custody in New York preparing for his long-awaited trial, his legal team has only given hints at a defense, sometimes suggesting at hearings and in court papers that he never played as central a role in the Sinaloa drug cartel as the government has claimed.
But Mr. Lichtman’s speech on Tuesday posited what amounted to a complex, cross-border scheme to railroad Mr. Guzmán, one that was undertaken, he claimed, not only by compromised Mexican officials, but also by “crooked” agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration. The government’s own witnesses will soon testify that some of those agents allowed Mr. Zambada to traffic drugs freely, Mr. Lichtman said.
The defense’s arguments, which will continue Wednesday morning, came after Adam Fels, a federal prosecutor, told the jury the evidence would prove Mr. Guzmán was not only the cartel’s leader, but the world’s biggest drug dealer. Mr. Fels said that authorities in the United States have seized more than 40 tons of Mr. Guzmán’s cocaine. That was enough, he said, to form 328 million separate lines of the drug.
Mr. Fels also said that during his long career, Mr. Guzmán had a payroll of corrupt officials and a violent army of sicarios — professional assassins — to protect his multibillion-dollar empire.
“Money, drugs, murder, a vast global narcotics trafficking organization,” Mr. Fels told the jury. “That is what this case is about.”
The government has accused Mr. Guzmán not only of having a hand in dozens of killings in his homeland, but also of running a sprawling organization that smuggled at least 200 tons of cocaine into the United States in a fleet of yachts, planes, fishing boats and submarines. Guzmán was convicted on drug and murder charges in Mexico in 1993, but escaped from prison twice — once, according to some accounts, in a jailhouse laundry cart and later on a motorcycle his associates left for him in a mile-long tunnel they dug into the shower of his cell.
Federal prosecutors plan to present a parade of cooperating witnesses and a mountain of evidence, including drug ledgers, satellite photos and secretly recorded audiotapes. They have promised that evidence will show that Mr. Guzmán raked in $14 billion in illicit profits.
The trial has received extraordinary media attention. So many journalists from the United States and Mexico showed up to cover the trial on Tuesday that the main courtroom and an auxiliary overflow room were filled within an hour. Dozens of reporters were stranded in a hallway unable to watch the proceeding at all.
Yet despite the anticipation, the trial began with a false start, Judge Cogan announcing that two of the 18 anonymous jurors needed to be dismissed.
One of them, Judge Cogan said, was “anxious and upset” at the prospect of sitting in judgment of Mr. Guzmán, a man said to be the most notorious and feared criminal of the 21st century. The other had complained that he would suffer financial hardship from being out of work during the four-month trial. The parties broke away for an emergency jury selection session, picking two new panelists by midafternoon.
Mr. Fels described the defendant as a seasoned trafficker who had ascended to the top of his cartel after getting a start growing poppies and marijuana in Sinaloa. He later made a name for himself as a speedy smuggler who worked with Colombian cartels.
But Mr. Lichtman said Mr. Guzman was “a nobody” with “a second-grade education” who had for years been blamed for Mr. Zambada’s wrongdoing. “There is another side to this story,” he told the jury.
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