It took more than a year, but Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán has finally assembled his legal dream team.
Last August, Chapo moved to hire Jeffrey Lichtman, a high-powered New York defense attorney who helped keep mob boss John Gotti Jr. out of prison in the early 2000s.
But although Chapo signed a retainer agreement, Lichtman never formally joined his defense team. The deal was predicated on figuring out a way for Chapo to pay Lichtman, since the government has indicated it may attempt to seize any money that came from the cartel, including legal fees. Lichtman remained on the sidelines until Monday, when he entered a formal notice to appear as Chapo’s attorney in Brooklyn federal court.
“We all sort of reached an accommodation and figured this out,” Lichtman told VICE News. “It took awhile. It’s not an easy situation considering his placement in the most restrictive conditions ever in the history of the United States,” he added, referring to Chapo’s placement in extreme solitary confinement at a Manhattan federal jail nicknamed “Little Gitmo.”
Chapo is only allowed to receive visits from his legal team and his twin 7-year-old daughters, who are both U.S. citizens. Other family members, including his wife and sister, have been blocked from meeting with him, which his attorneys have said makes it difficult to coordinate. In February, Chapo’s lawyers released a letter in which the kingpin complained about the conditions of his confinement and implored his family to pay his attorneys.
Lichtman said he’s been meeting regularly with Chapo and last visited him “a few weeks ago.” He declined to say how exactly he’s getting paid, but he confirmed that he has received at least one payment. He said there’s still no guarantee that the government will not attempt to seize the money.
“Nothing has really changed on that front; the government doesn’t give preemptive blessings on how attorneys are paid,” Lichtman said. “But I feel comfortable, from my own due diligence, I suppose, that things were done correctly this time.”
Although Chapo is supposedly a billionaire, for the first few months following his extradition from Mexico on Jan. 19, 2017, Chapo was represented by public defenders, who were paid for by U.S. taxpayers. The drug lord initially claimed he had no money for attorneys, and then the issue of whether private lawyers could be paid without the government seizing the money further complicated the situation.
Chapo’s trial on an assortment drug, money laundering, and conspiracy charges is set to begin on November 5, and he faces life in prison if convicted. Already, court filings show that prosecutors have handed over to the defense more than 329,000 pages of documents and “hundreds of thousands of recorded conversations,” which they plan to use as evidence.
“Our small team has been working hard for many months to organize literal mountains of discovery in preparation for trial and to ensure Mr. Guzman’s rights are protected,” Balarezo told VICE News. “Mr. Lichtman is ready to roll up his sleeves and get to work as the trial is little more than two months away.”
Lichtman said the defense’s strategy will focus on the government’s reliance on cooperating witnesses, who will be testifying against Chapo in exchange for leniency in their own cases. The government has said the former Colombian drug lords are prepared to testify against El Chapo, and several of Chapo’s ex-associates from the Sinaloa cartel who have been extradited in recent years may also take the stand.
“My experience in the past has been that jurors are not all that forgiving when they see the kind of human slop the government produces as their main evidence in the case,” Lichtman said. “As I’ve said from the beginning, whatever he’s accused of from the past few decades doesn’t mean he’s guilty of anything in the Eastern District of New York.”
Lichtman is likely hoping for a repeat of the Gotti Jr. case. In 2005, the former head of the Gambino crime family was acquitted on a racketeering charge and ended up with mistrials on several other counts, a stunning outcome that kept the mob leader out of prison and earned him the nickname “The Teflon Don,” because no charges would stick against him.
“I’ve been doing this too long to get cowed by the idea that any case is unwinnable,” Lichtman said. “I was told the same thing with Gotti. Any case can be won, any case can be lost.”