A lawyer for accused drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera took the floor in Brooklyn federal court one last time Thursday, delivering a fire-and-brimstone final argument accusing the prosecution’s witnesses of intentionally lying in a bid to send his client to prison for life.
In an impassioned speech that was by turns strident and comical, defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman begged jurors to reject the case the government has painstakingly built against his client over nearly three months, doing his best to inject enough doubt into their minds to acquit Guzmán.
Lichtman opened on a combative note Thursday morning, launching a blistering attack on the government and on the parade of former associates, henchmen and underlings the prosecution had called to testify against Guzmán since the trial began.
In a bid to deflect the prosecution’s argument that many of the witnesses corroborated parts of one another’s testimony, Lichtman focused on their confessed misdeeds, which included industrial-scale drug trafficking, rampant drug use and mass murder. It was a multimedia affair, filled with visual clues that included a replay of Guzmán’s so-called “Rolling Stone interview,” a cartoon rendering of Guzmán’s trademark black baseball cap atop a mustache, and a parade of mugshots showing the unsavory characters whose testimony Lichtman hoped to discredit.
Guzmán faces a 10-count indictment for drug trafficking, weapons smuggling and related conspiracy charges, and if found guilty faces life in prison. Since November, prosecutors have slowly built a case against him, based largely on on the testimony of fellow drug traffickers and rooted in a trove of intercepted phone calls and text messages alleged to depict El Chapo directly involving himself in the smuggling operation.
Over nearly three months of testimony, jurors heard about the early days of the Sinaloa Cartel, how Guzmán helped revolutionize cocaine smuggling, his wars with rivals and his two infamous prison breaks throughout the nearly 30 years that prosecutors say he was active as one of the world’s most prolific drug traffickers. In recent weeks, they heard some of the most damning, gory testimony yet, including a handful of bloody murders committed either at his behest or directly by his hand. In the prosecution’s closing arguments, delivered in a marathon session that spanned more than seven hours on Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Goldbarg walked jurors through each charge against Guzmán and methodically linked it with the specific testimony she said proved his guilt, before urging jurors to heed the “avalanche of evidence” they had seen and heard and help put Guzmán away for good.
“Do not let him escape,” she said. “Hold him accountable for his crimes. Find him guilty on all counts.”
In a trial that has often been marked by stunning testimony, flamboyant theatrics from the defense and sober, choreographed questioning from prosecutors, the opposing arguments delivered this week were a fitting culmination of each sides style: While Goldbarg carefully laid out the case against Guzmán, Lichtman put on a memorable show that appeared to keep jurors riveted.
The prosecution’s case was centered around the testimony of 14 cooperating witnesses, some of whom spent days on the stand. It was also anchored by hard evidence in the form of drug and weapon seizures, along with recordings and intercepted text messages that the government says show El Chapo taking an active role in conspiracies to ship drugs and murder enemies, among other crimes.
On Wednesday, Goldbarg pointed to numerous consistencies between the testimonies of various witnesses, corroboration that Goldbarg argued overcame the unreliability of one former drug trafficker testifying against another.
But the criminal backgrounds of the cooperators, and their obvious motives to testify — all but two are in federal lockup and hope to receive reduced sentences — could prove to be a weakness, and one that the defense was eager to exploit.
“Normally I’d say yeah, if you have four or five people saying the same thing,” Lichtman said on Thursday. “But these are not normal criminals. These are like the worst criminals ever.”
Lichtman then treated jurors to a class reunion of sorts, trotting out a slideshow of the witnesses they had heard from since November. It was a villainous-looking crowd that included a disfigured Colombian mass-murderer, a trigger-happy henchman, and a former aide to El Chapo who admitted that he was hoovering up as much as four grams of cocaine a day during the time period in question.
Throughout the trial, Lichtman had taken turns with fellow defense lawyers William Purpura and Eduardo Balarezo in trying to poke holes in the testimony of the witnesses who turned on Guzmán. And for much of the trial, he appeared frustrated by the bounds imposed on him by Judge Brian M. Cogan, as well as the limits mandated by basic courtroom rules, frequently drawing repeated objections when he went too far in badgering a witness.
But on Thursday, unrestrained by the question-and-answer choreography of cross-examination, Lichtman was in rare form. Clad in a dark suit and pausing occasionally for dramatic effect, Lichtman repeatedly describing the witnesses with crass insults, calling them things like “scum,” “a bottomless pit of immorality,” “degenerates,” and “animals” ranging from “vicious” to “wild.”
He reserved perhaps his greatest anger for Colombian narco-trafficker brothers Jorge and Alex Cifuentes Villa, both of whom testified at trial and had sparred aggressively with Lichtman during their respective cross-examinations. Referring to their family-run drug empire — a sordid, multigenerational clan frequently torn apart by intrigue and the occasional attempted intrafamilial kidnapping plots — Lichtman urged jurors to discount nearly everything that came out of the brothers’ mouths against his client.
“Would you buy a used car from a Cifuentes?” he asked. “Would you let a Cifuentes babysit your kid? Would you loan money to a Cifuentes?”
Lichtman answered for them.
“No!” he exclaimed. “The car would break down, your baby would be sold for a kilo of cocaine, and you’d go broke trying to chase him down for the money you lent him.”
In a reprise of his opening statement at the beginning of the trial, Lichtman repeatedly accused the government of railroading El Chapo while allowing the man he said is the real boss of Sinaloa, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García, to go free. Again and again he returned to the subject of El Mayo, a longtime business partner of Guzmán, whom the defense team has sought to portray as the ultimate Don, wealthy and unafraid and granted the ability to stay out of prison thanks to a lifelong ability to bribe all levels of Mexican government into submission. He described El Chapo as a foolish man whose desire for fame led to his eventual downfall, putting a target on his back and allowing El Mayo to remain free in relative obscurity.
“The bigger Mr. Guzman’s profile and notoriety grew, the more the heat fell on him and away from Mr. Zambada,” Lichtman said.
El Mayo appeared as an answer to some of the most damning evidence against El Chapo: the bribes Guzmán was accused of paying to former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto were actually paid by El Mayo, Lichtman argued; the nasally, sing-songy voice heard on more than a dozen secretly intercepted phone calls that prosecutors said belonged to Guzmán? Maybe it was El Mayo, Lichtman suggested.
In the afternoon, he turned to the infamous “Rolling Stone video,” an interview Guzmán recorded in the fall of 2015, while on the run following his escape from prison earlier that year, in collaboration with actors Sean Penn and Kate del Castillo. Prosecutors had used the video to compare Guzmán’s voice with that heard on the phone recordings, but Lichtman had another suggestion.
“The voice on the tapes could be anybody. It could be Mayo Zambada,” he said. “Do you really believe that’s the same person? Beyond a reasonable doubt?”
On Thursday afternoon, following the end of Lichtman’s arguments and an hourlong rebuttal by the prosecution, jurors headed home for the weekend. Deliberation is set to begin on Monday morning.