The trial of accused cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera inched toward the finish line Tuesday morning as the defense team rested its case after calling a single witness to testify.
In a lightning round of questioning that clocked in at less than half an hour, defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman quizzed Paul F. Robertson Jr., an FBI special agent, about two interviews Robertson took part in with Colombian narco-trafficker brothers Jorge and Alex Cifuentes. It seemed to be a last-ditch effort to draw the jury’s attention to accusations of corruption by United States officials.
The defense team’s case was almost shockingly brief, in contrast to the case brought by the prosecution, which called 56 witnesses to testify against Guzmán over over the past 11 weeks. It was during that testimony, when attorneys cross-examined the government’s witnesses, that the El Chapo’s lawyers mounted their defense against the case against their client, relentlessly calling into question the integrity of the witnesses against him and, when allowed by Judge Brian Cogan, doing their best to paint a picture of corrupt officials in the United States and Mexico railroading their client.
Following the defense case, Cogan sent jurors home for the day, a rare respite for the group, which has spent long hours at the Brooklyn federal courthouse for nearly every weekday, Monday through Thursday, since early November.
On Wednesday, prosecutors are set to deliver their final arguments against Guzmán, which will likely focus on the decades of recollections from witnesses of his alleged involvement in trafficking staggering amounts of drugs into the United States — along with numerous murders he’s accused of committing along the way — as well as the dozens of intercepted phone calls and text messages allegedly showing Guzmán taking an active role in the everyday operations of the Sinaloa Cartel.
The defense team is set to make its final stand on Thursday, and will likely mount a lengthy, impassioned refutation of the witnesses and evidence that has been introduced since November. Throughout the trial, Guzmán’s defense has focused on inconsistencies in witness statements, along with a sustained effort to downplay his alleged role in the drug trade, with his attorneys looking to shine a spotlight on his former partner, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García, whom they accuse of being the true leader of the cartel.
Guzmán currently faces a 10-count indictment — down from the original 17 charges against him — including charges of international drug trafficking, drug conspiracy and illegal use of firearms. He faces life in prison if convicted.
The questioning of Agent Robertson on Tuesday morning centered on a claim by Jorge Cifuentes, made during a February 2017 debriefing with the FBI, that he had been approached by an American naval-intelligence officer. According to the earlier testimony, that officer showed Cifuentes a thumb drive containing evidence that was being gathered as part of an American-led investigation into Cifuentes and his family, which was deeply involved in cocaine smuggling.
The defense team had originally planned to call two witnesses Tuesday, but in an order filed Monday evening, Judge Cogan barred Guzmán’s attorneys from calling the second witness, another federal agent who had interviewed Jorge Cifuentes.
After weeks of speculation about whether El Chapo himself would testify on his own behalf, Guzmán announced Monday afternoon he would not be taking the stand. In a brief exchange with Cogan — the only time at trial that jurors have heard the accused kingpin speak in person — El Chapo relinquished his right to testify.
“You have the absolute right to testify. Is this your decision?” Cogan asked the defendant.
“Yes,” Guzmán replied. “They counseled me and I agreed.”
The announcement came shortly after the prosecution rested its case, which ended with the testimony one federal agent who testified about the tunnel Guzmán’s henchmen dug to break him out of a Mexican prison in 2015, and another who spoke briefly about the difficulty of obtaining physical evidence from Mexican authorities.
Also returning to the stand on Monday was Isaias Valdez Ríos, nicknamed Memín, who last week walked jurors through a series of horrific kidnappings, tortures and murders he said he saw Guzmán commit.
Moving away from the violence from last week, prosecutors quizzed Valdez on a series of texts allegedly sent between him and El Chapo, in which the pair discussed smuggling flights between Ecuador, Honduras and Mexico, the latest in a long string of intercepted communications that appear to tie Guzmán directly to the most minute details of the international drug conspiracy he’s charged with running.
In cross-examination, defense attorney Eduardo Balarezo launched into a combative back-and-forth with Valdez, questioning nearly every aspect of the gory tale. Balarezo appeared to be purposefully confusing the witness, misstating the testimony multiple times, including mixing up the number of victims, the names of Valdez’s fellow gunmen, and the dates Valdez had given for the incidents. At one point, Balarezo repeatedly referred to the actions of a sicario named “Roque,” despite the fact that on Thursday, Valdez had clearly ascribed those deeds to a man he called “Bocho.”
Faced with the grim testimony from Valdez, who accused Guzmán of twice kidnapping rival cartel members and brutally torturing them before executing them and disposing of the bodies, Guzmán’s lawyers attempted to find holes in the stories. At times, that meant bringing up things that El Chapo, known for his vanity, was likely not pleased with.
“For three hours, Chapo Guzman was beating the hell out of these guys?” Balarezo asked Valdez in an incredulous voice before motioning to his client and asking him to stand. “This 5-foot-6 guy, 60-something years old, was just whacking at these guys with a tree branch?”
In another exchange, Balarezo called into question an anecdote from Valdez about the witness’s professed involvement in a wild shootout with members of a rival cartel. According to Valdez, when he and his fellow hitmen had approached a gas station on the outskirts of the small Sinaloa town of Burrión, members of the enemy Beltrán-Leyva cartel had opened fire, prompting Valdez to run over one gunman with his armored SUV.
But in a video still showing the aftermath of the shooting, the vehicle Valdez had identified as his was shown without a speck of blood on the front bumper. Valdez explained that the rival gunman had been kneeling, which he said lead to the lack of blood on the front of the car, but Balarezo seemed unconvinced.
“If they can’t believe you on the little things, how can they believe you on the big things?” he asked.