The monthslong prosecution of drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was a highly scripted performance populated by “lifelong liars” willing to perjure themselves in exchange for reduced sentences and other benefits, a defense attorney said Thursday.
On the 38th day of the sensational New York trial of a man long considered to be the world’s biggest trafficker, defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman delivered a closing argument laced with humor and sarcasm. At times he elicited laughter from the usually stoic panel.
Lichtman called into question the credibility of a parade of cooperating witnesses who “lied every day of their lives – their miserable, selfish lives.”
“Many lied while cooperating,” he said. “Many lied in this courtroom.”
Lichtman also returned to a theory first introduced during opening statements 2½ months ago: The Sinaloa Cartel is led by Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada. Lichtman argued that Zambada, an associate of Guzmán’s, bribed the Mexican government to frame El Chapo and remain free to run the cartel.
Defense pulls Monopoly get out of jail free card
Lichtman’s four-hour closing dwarfed the defense case, which was over in minutes with the testimony of a lone FBI agent.
He dismissed the government’s case as a “scripted event” and “a play” featuring 14 cooperating witnesses – mostly traffickers and cartel associates. He accused them of habitually lying in exchange for favorable treatment, including visas for family members to enter the United States. Some collected money for living expenses, while others stand to get recommendations for more lenient sentences, he said.
To illustrate his argument, Lichtman at one point displayed the image of a Monopoly “get out of jail free” card.
The defense attorney pointed to the recent testimony of fellow trafficker Alex Cifuentes, who was a secretary for Guzmán and spent two years living with him in the mountains of El Chapo’s home state of Sinaloa.
“You lied about Mr. Guzmán didn’t you?” Lichtman asked, rereading from testimony in which the witness admitted to lying to associates, family members and government officials.
“No, sir,” Cifuentes said.
“He’s the only person you didn’t lie about?”
‘The scariest of all people’
Lichtman took aim at another cooperating witness, Colombian drug lord Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia, also known as “Chupeta,” or lollipop. His face is disfigured from multiple surgeries in an unsuccessful attempt to evade capture.
Calling Chupeta “a bottomless pit of immorality,” Lichtman enumerated the many surgeries performed on the witness’ jaw, his eyes – “I wish he would have not done the eyes” – and ears.
“I thought he was the scariest of all the people,” he said.
Some jurors laughed.
“That’s what a real drug kingpin looks like,” Lichtman said.
Guzmán has been either in prison or in hiding – “never living freely” – since 1993, Lichtman said, again making the case for Zambada as the true cartel boss.
“You know who, for 20 years, has been free? Mayo Zambada,” the defense lawyer said.
Lichtman recounted the testimony of Zambada’s son, Vicente, who was asked what his father did for a living.
“My dad is the Sinaloa Cartel’s leader,” the son replied.
In a 50-minute rebuttal, federal prosecutor Amanda Liskamm reminded jurors that Guzmán, not Zambada, was on trial.
“We don’t have to prove that the defendant was the ultimate leader,” she said. “We don’t even have to prove that he was one of the top leaders… Even under (the theory of Zabada as true kingpin) the defendant is still a boss. He’s still guilty.”
Lichtman was distracting them from the evidence, which clearly implicated El Chapo as top cartel boss, she said.
“In order to believe the defense’s arguments you have to believe that the defendant is the unluckiest man in the world.” Liskamm said.
Defense: ‘You don’t have to give into the myth of El Chapo’
Earlier, the defense lawyer also attempted to pick away at other evidence, such as recordings of phone calls involving El Chapo and presented without the supporting testimony of a voice expert.
“The voice on those tapes could be anybody,” he said. “They could be Mayo Zambada.”
Lichtman added, “If you’re willing to look past the name El Chapo you have the tools to acquit … You don’t have to give into the myth of El Chapo.”
On Wednesday, federal prosecutor Andrea Goldbarg walked jurors through the mountain of evidence presented to them since the drug conspiracy trial began in November. For dramatic effect during closing arguments, she stacked nearly 10 cardboard boxes with the markings of the US Drug Enforcement Administration atop a plastic bag on the floor of the federal courtroom in Brooklyn.
She told jurors that El Chapo for 25 years headed a global narcotics empire greased for decades with corruption and violence. She reminded them of a number of murder conspiracies allegedly involving Guzmán, particularly the testimony of his onetime mistress, former Mexican lawmaker Lucero Sanchez.
Goldbarg read from Sanchez’s testimony about the day Guzmán learned of the slaying of his cousin, Juan “Juancho” Guzmán. She quoted the defendant telling his lover that “whoever betrayed him was going to die regardless if they were family or women. If people ratted him out, they were going to die.”
Trial had 200 hours of testimony from 56 witnesses
Goldbarg insisted that most of the accounts of the cooperating witnesses lined up.
“Some of these cooperating witnesses don’t even know each other, and those who do haven’t seen each other in years,” she said.
“Who travels in an armored car?” Goldbarg asked. “Who has a rotating staff of cooks and secretaries? Who has an escape tunnel built directly into the tub of his bathroom? Who has an army of people to protect them from enemies and who has enemies that they need an army to protect them from? Who has diamond-encrusted pistols? A boss of the Sinaloa Cartel does these things.”
Guzmán faces faces 10 counts, including conspiracy to launder narcotics proceeds and international distribution of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and other drugs. He has pleaded not guilty.
The high-profile trial in Brooklyn federal court included 200 hours of testimony from 56 witnesses, many of them law enforcement agents.
Jury deliberations are expected to begin Monday after instructions from the judge.