When Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was extradited from Mexico to New York last year, federal prosecutors claimed he was “the most notorious drug trafficker in the world” and the “principal leader” of the Sinaloa cartel, “the world’s largest and most prolific drug trafficking organization.”
But in his latest court appearance in the celebrated trial Tuesday, Chapo’s lawyers demanded the government hand over evidence that purportedly shows the infamous drug kingpin was actually just a “middle manager” who “had to take orders from somebody else.”
So which is it? Was Chapo the supreme leader of the Sinaloa cartel or merely a lieutenant obeying the commands of other, unnamed top bosses?
That line of questioning figures to be key to his defense at his upcoming trial, which is scheduled to start Sept. 5, and Judge Brian Cogan is now poised to decide whether to require the prosecution to hand over information that Chapo’s legal team says could plant seeds of doubt about his guilt in the minds of potential jurors.
If Chapo himself had any qualms about the efforts to demote from his alleged leadership position in the Sinaloa cartel, he did not express them Tuesday. Wearing a drab, navy blue jail uniform and sporting a fresh shave, he sat in silence and spent most of the proceeding staring at his beauty-queen wife and twin daughters in the courtroom gallery.
Read: Don't click on this story if you want to be on the El Chapo jury
Meanwhile, Chapo’s lead attorney, Eduardo Balarezo, expounded on a court filing from early Tuesday morning in which he argued that the government is withholding pieces of evidence that “specifically indicate that Mr. Guzmán was not the leader, nor a leader, of the so-called Sinaloa Cartel or some other drug-trafficking organization.”
Under federal law, prosecutors are required to hand over to the defense any evidence that could potentially be “exculpatory,” meaning it could be exonerating. On June 4, the government sent Balarezo a bullet-pointed list of 41 such items about Chapo. The specifics remain under seal, but prosecutors said in a subsequent filing that most of the material dealt with Chapo’s “relative standing” to other drug traffickers.
One of the charges against Chapo is that he oversaw a “continuing criminal enterprise,” which essentially means he was the top shot caller at a violent drug cartel. Balarezo says the government is holding back on info that suggests that’s not true.
“What they have given us so far is information that they have had in their possession for a long time which said that Mr. Guzman was not a leader, was working under other people, was not the head of the Sinaloa cartel,” he told reporters after the hearing
The claim that Chapo wasn’t running the show at the Sinaloa cartel isn’t as outlandish as it might seem at first glance. The cartel is known to have several leaders in addition to Chapo, including Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who remains free in Mexico, and Juan Jose “El Azul” Esparragoza, who is now presumed dead but was active during Chapo’s heyday. Chapo isn’t even the lead defendant on his own indictment — he’s listed below Arturo Beltrán-Leyva, a top capo who split from the Sinaloa cartel and went to war with Chapo’s faction of the group.
Balarezo asked Judge Cogan to require the government to give more details about the information it has already presented, including the names of people who gave information to law enforcement, and where and when the statements about Chapo were made.
“Whether he was equally powerful or more powerful does not negate his role”
The government, meanwhile, contends that the evidence it described in the letter to Balarezo is not reliable because it involves “various layers of hearsay.” For example, prosecutors said in a court filing that somebody told U.S. law enforcement that Chapo “does not like to wear a mustache,” even though “various public photographs and videos over the years have depicted the defendant with a mustache.”
Andrea Goldbarg, the chief prosecutor in Chapo’s case, also argued Tuesday that it doesn’t matter whether Chapo was the top boss or somebody farther down the totem pole because either way he was still a drug trafficker.
“Whether he was equally powerful or more powerful does not negate his role,” she said, noting that the law says a person only needs to give order to five or more people in order to meet the standard for running a “continuing criminal enterprise.”
Balarezo responded that it wasn’t up to Goldbarg to make the call about whether the evidence was relevant or not. “That’s for the jury to decide,” he said.
Judge Cogan appeared sympathetic to that argument. He asked Balarezo to submit a filing by midnight on Tuesday to explain in greater detail why Chapo would need the evidence from the government in order to mount his defense.
Cogan also seemed open to Balarezo’s request to move the trial from Brooklyn to the Southern District of New York, which is in Manhattan. Chapo is being held at a maximum-security jail near the federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan, and the defense argued that constantly moving him to Brooklyn during the trial, a process that requires shutting down the Brooklyn Bridge so that his heavily-armed security convoy can cross, will prejudice members of the jury by giving the impression that Chapo is dangerous.
Fittingly, for a kingpin who is legendary for his escape from Mexican prison through a mile-long tunnel and for using elaborate tunnels to smuggle drugs across the border, moving the trial to Manhattan would allow Chapo to move from jail to court through a short underground passage.
Cover image: Mexico's top drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted as he arrives at Long Island MacArthur airport in New York, U.S., January 19, 2017, after his extradition from Mexico. Picture taken Janaury 19, 2017. U.S. officials/Handout via REUTERS