El Chapo trial observers start to think the unthinkable – he might get off
Jury has unnerved prosecutors by asking for transcripts of ‘snitch’ witnesses
Jeffrey Lichtman, lawyer for, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’, arrives at the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse in New York on February 6th. Photograph: Brendan McDermid/Reuters
It would be a reckless gambler who would bet on acquittal for the accused Mexican drug lord, but the odds shorten with each day of indecision. This is not the slam-dunk conviction prosecutors – and most of the rest of the world – were expecting.
Defence lawyer Jeffrey Lichtman was not only treated to a bear-hug by his client in court last week, but has been busy online, citing bedazzled correspondents such as CNN’s Maria Santana, who commented in a tweet: “With humor & sarcasm, he relentlessly attacked credibility of govt’s cooperating witnesses”.
He also retweeted the New York Post’s view that: “The government prosecutors looked far less thrilled than Chapo and his team as the jurors went home for the weekend – and seem to be starting to sweat as the deliberations drag on far longer than many had expected”.
Trying to read a partially-sequestered jury’s collective mind is tricky, of course. But it is equally irresistible.
The jury has surprised observers and unnerved prosecutors by asking for transcripts of “snitch” witnesses who have turned state’s evidence in pursuit of commuted sentences for themselves.
According to the surfeit of books and films about Guzmán’s kind, the case should depend on heroic US agents doing their work to great effect. But that’s fiction: Guzmán conviction relies on testimony by his former associates, and their credibility.
And these are under jurors’ scrutiny, faced with a “mountain of evidence” – as the prosecution itself said – and a complex task: 53 boxes that must be checked “Guilty” or “Not Guilty”, “Proven” or “Not Proven”, “Yes” or “No”. The jury also needs to find Guzmán guilty on drug-smuggling counts before it can convict for the firearms or money laundering charges he’s spent months on trial for in New York’s trendier borough.
Or maybe because they don’t believe the snitches: one must recall how Lichtman achieved the acquittal, in 2005, of John Gotti Junior, heir to the Gambino clan of his namesake father, convicted in this court in 1992.
The 2005 jury was deadlocked, unable to agree on the veracity of snitch witness Michael “Mickey Scars” DiLeonardo. Lichtman had used similar language in that trial, calling any case dependent on Mickey Scars “a limping wreck”.
One juror in that trial told the New York Times that the jury’s debate “was exhausting … Have you ever tried to get three people to agree on anything? Try 12”.
But that trial was a maquette for the huge sculpture of this one, Lichtman trying to achieve that same “reasonable doubt” on a grand scale.
The Guzmán jury first summoned evidence from Jorge and Alex Cifuentes Villa. Jorge was leader of the Valle del Norte Cartel which furnished Guzmán for decades. Maybe jurors wanted another look at the plethora of deals they cut together, or a phone call Cifuentes set up between El Chapo and comrades from Las Farc Marxist guerrillas.
Or perhaps it was Cifuentes’s career of deception that interests them, not wanting to be conned by the man who, by his own admission, faked a diploma and created a reserve of several million hectares “for indigenous people” – admitting in court that it had not after all been for such “noble motives”.
Maybe jurors want to glean what kind of deals these witnesses are on: how Cifuentes was able to place a 15-minute phone call from a cell here in Brooklyn to brother Alex, jailed in Colombia. After he was found out, Cifuentes continued to pass messages to Alex through a lawyer on his visitor list, Fernanda Hernández.
“And no one stopped you for two years, did they?” asked Lichtman. “No sir,” replied Cifuentes.
Brother Alex’s testimony was also recalled: including that on a $100 million bribe paid by Guzmán to then incoming president Enrique Peño Nieto in 2012 (a claim the now former president has denied).
Jurors also wanted to review testimony from Juan Carlos “Chupeta” Ramirez Abadia – alias “The Lollipop”. Maybe they want to look again at Chupeta’s account of young Guzmán pledging to move more cocaine faster than anyone else, how the pair discussed their networks of corrupted authorities, or Chupeta’s brazen accounts of his own violence.
If Guzmán were to be acquitted, he does not get to walk. The federal prosecutors in the New York Eastern District constitute but one place wherein an indictment awaited El Chapo when he was extradited from Mexico to the US early in 2017. He also faces multiple charges in Illinois, California, Texas and Florida. But in no place can he face “Double Jeopardy” – he cannot be tried twice on the same evidence.
Which may be why we did not see a full array of the “co-operating witnesses” available to the government in New York. For instance, still available for testimony is Damaso López Nuñez, known as El Licenciado for his law degree – a former police officer and politician believed to be behind an attack on Guzmán’s mother and the kidnap of two of his sons.