An attorney for Joaquin Guzmán Loera, the alleged Mexican drug kingpin known as “El Chapo,” went too far in his opening statements by suggesting that the case against his client is driven in part by crooked government officials in the United States and Latin America, a judge said on Wednesday.
On Tuesday afternoon, during the first half of his opening statements to the jury in the drug conspiracy trial against Guzmán, defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman said the government is selectively prosecuting his client, who is more of a household name than other suspected leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel, over Ismael Zambada García, who is now the cartel’s suspected leader and remains at large.
Lichtman went further to tell jurors that the case will reveal an “uglier side” to the story, including that Zambada and the U.S. government “work together when it suits them” and that law enforcement and government officials in the U.S. and Mexico—including Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto; he was preceded by Felipe Calderón.
“This is a case which will require you to open your minds to the possibility that government officials at the very highest level can be bribed, can conspire to commit horrible crimes; that American law enforcement agents can also be crooked,” Lichtman said on Tuesday.
Before Lichtman began the second half of his opening statements on Wednesday morning, prosecutors filed a motion to strike the arguments that Lichtman had presented on Tuesday for improperly arguing that Guzmán was the subject of selective prosecution, making arguments not based on evidence and for relying on inadmissible hearsay.
Prosecutors noted that U.S. District Court Judge Brian Cogan of the Eastern District of New York, who presides over what is expected to be a 16-week trial, granted motions in limine to preclude the defense from pursuing a selective prosecution strategy.
“Nonetheless, despite the court’s clear ruling in place to avoid this exact situation, Mr. Lichtman chose to present this argument in opening statements in an attempt to improperly sway the jury,” the government said in a letter to Cogan
Cogan did not grant the government’s motion, but warned Lichtman about going too far afield from the evidence in the case when completing his opening statements.
“Your opening statements handed out a lot of promissory notes that your case is not going to cash,” Cogan told the veteran defense attorney.
Guzmán faces 17 counts in the conspiracy case, in which he is accused along side Zambada of running a murderous, multi-billion dollar drug smuggling operation from 1989 to 2014. Guzmán faces a maximum penalty of life in prison and the government is seeking $14 billion in forfeiture.
Guzmán’s defense team’s primary strategy thus far has been to undermine the government’s case by directing jurors’ attention to the checkered pasts of their cooperating witnesses, a rogue’s gallery that includes César Gastelum Serrano, a prolific drug smuggler who allegedly had a hand in the killing of a prosecutor in Honduras; and Miguel Angel Martinez, who Lichtman said maintained a four-gram-per-day cocaine habit for 15 years.
“This is the kind of scum I told you about yesterday,” Lichtman said. “This is what you’re dealing with.”
Lichtman has also argued that “El Chapo” is more legend than man, and that the mythical branding belies that the alleged drug kingpin was obsessed with notoriety—thus the interview with actor Sean Penn that Rolling Stone published in 2016—and often hard up for money.
In addition to Lichtman, Guzmán’s defense team includes Eduardo Balarezo, who represented convicted drug lord Alfredo Beltrán Leyva; Michael Lambert and Mariel Colon Miro of the Law Offices of Michael Lambert; and William Purpura of the Law Offices of Purpura & Purpura.
Leading the prosecution in the case are Andrea Goldbarg, Hiral Mehta, Patricia Notopoulos, Gina Parlovecchio and Michael Robotti from the Eastern District of New York; and Adam Fels and Lynn Kirkpatrick of the Southern District of Florida.