Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán is widely known as the top boss of the Sinaloa cartel, the world’s richest and most powerful drug trafficking organization. And according to federal prosecutors, that also means he’s a prolific mass murderer.
Chapo was extradited last year and is awaiting a trial in Brooklyn federal court. On July 20, the government filed a “bill of particulars,” which includes a long list of murders allegedly ordered by Chapo over the years. The alleged victims include cartel rivals, informants, law enforcement officials, Chapo’s cousin, his ex-bodyguard, and at least one man who might still be alive.
After prosecutors unveiled the list (viewable in full below), Chapo’s lead attorney, Eduardo Balarezo, said it appears the government is seeking to “introduce evidence that Mr. Guzmán conspired to murder somewhere between 20 and an infinite number of people over a 25-year period.”
Technically, Chapo hasn’t been charged with a single homicide. But he is under indictment for running a “Continuing Criminal Enterprise,” a charge that allows prosecutors to present evidence that Chapo and his organization conspired to have one or more people killed. If convicted under the so-called Kingpin Statute, Chapo faces a minimum of life in prison, though the United States’ extradition treaty with Mexico would spare him the death penalty.
It’s still unclear how prosecutors intend to prove that Chapo was actually responsible for any of the murders — although there’s a mountain of evidence in the case that hasn't been made public yet. Chapo has often been blamed for bloodshed, but Mike Vigil, the former chief of international operations for the DEA, says the evidence is lacking in some cases.
“They’d be lucky to prove about a third of the murder conspiracies they have listed, but they’re going to throw everything they possibly can against him,” Vigil said. “They’ll throw the kitchen sink, the dish towels, everything.”
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn declined to comment.
The hit list reads like a who’s who of dead drug lords, including Ramon Arellano-Felix, a feared Tijuana cartel leader killed Feb. 10, 2002, in the resort city of Mazatlán, in what was described at the time as “a chance encounter with traffic police.” Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes, “The Golden Boy,” was a leader of the Juarez cartel who was shot to death Sept. 11, 2004, while leaving a movie theater with his family in Sinaloa’s capital Culiacán, allegedly on Chapo’s orders.
The list includes a total of 28 entries altogether, and many are extremely short on details. While some full names and dates of death are given, others just say “associates who betrayed the Sinaloa cartel” and were killed sometime between January 1989 and September 2014. Prosecutors said in the court filing that even listing the names of victims could put potential witnesses at risk of assassination.
“They’d be lucky to prove about a third of the murder conspiracies they have listed, but they’re going to throw everything they possibly can against him.”
On Wednesday, Balarezo moved to block the murder accusations, arguing that it’s impossible to prepare a defense without knowing details “like the name of the victim, the date of the murder, the place of the murder, or even the manner of death.”
"Even the people they named, we have no information on them,” Balarezo told VICE News. “We don’t know, did they really die? Is there a body? Is there an autopsy showing they were shot or stabbed? We don’t even know if they’re saying he did them, he ordered them, or if he’s a member of the conspiracy. It’s nuts."
Prosecutors list the date of one killing as “2007-2009” and identify the victim as Juan Pablo Ledezma or “JL.” The Mexican Attorney General’s website still lists Ledezma, a leader of La Línea, the armed wing of the Juarez cartel, among the country’s most wanted fugitives. Recent news reports have him still on the run, though Juarez newspaper El Diario described him in 2015 as “presumed dead.” A former law enforcement source who worked in Juarez told VICE News Ledezma was confirmed killed, though he was unsure exactly when.
Another victim is identified as Juan Guzman Rocha, a.k.a. “Juancho” or “Virgo,” whose body was found dumped along the side of a highway outside Culiacán on December 15, 2011, along with another corpse. Guzman Rocha was under federal indictment in Chicago, where he was connected to twin brothers who helped the DEA build a case Chapo. The government said in a 2014 court filing that although it was “not in possession of a death certificate” for Guzman Rocha, it had “credible information” that he was indeed deceased.
Yet another victim, Manuel Alejandro Aponte Gomez or “Bravo,” had been reported killed once previously before April 9, 2014, when prosecutors say he died. In this case at least, there is a clear motive: Bravo was Chapo’s chief bodyguard, and he was said to be in charge of security when his boss was captured two months earlier in February 2014.
Other killings appear to include misspelled names and incorrect dates. One victim is named as “Hector Rios Espinosa,” who was allegedly killed January 3, 2014. Multiple reports from local Mexican outlets say a businessman from Culiacán was found dead after a kidnapping on that date, but his name is spelled Héctor Ríos Espinoza.
Another victim is identified as Yamileth Bonnilla, with a year of death listed as 2009. Mexican news reports indicate an 18-year-old woman with a similar name — Yamileth Bonilla — was killed in Culiacan in July 2010, when three armed men wearing masks invaded her home and shot her in bed.
Chapo’s attorney argues that the vague list violates his right to due process. Already, according to Balarezo, prosecutors have handed over “320,000 pages of documents, and thousands of intercepted and recorded audio and electronic communications and dozens of videos,” and all that evidence must be reviewed before the upcoming trial.
Legal experts who spoke to VICE News noted that it’s typical for defense lawyers to complain that the deck is unfairly stacked against their client and that there’s not enough time to prepare for trial. Miriam Baer, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and a former federal prosecutor, said the difficulty is that Chapo’s lawyers remain in the dark about who will testify.There are also several likely suspects among drug lords who once worked with Chapo or feuded with him and are now in U.S. custody and looking to cut deals.
Without the names of witnesses or time and information to investigate murder allegations, Baer said, it can be difficult to convince jurors that a witness is lying.
“At the end of the day, you’re trying to get the jury to think, ‘Should we really trust this guy at all?’” Baer said. “It’s more about picking away at that particular witnesses’ credibility because he’s made a deal with the government or has been known to lie in the past.”
On Wednesday, Judge Brian Cogan ordered the government to “strongly consider revising” the list “so that it more closely reflects its order of proof at trial.” In other words, prosecutors need to be slightly more specific about what they actually intend to use against Chapo.
“At the end of the day, you’re trying to get the jury to think, ‘Should we really trust this guy at all?’”
Ronald Wright, a criminal law professor at Wake Forest University School of Law, said it’s not unusual for the government to be as vague as possible with murder conspiracy evidence in a continuing criminal enterprise case.
“It’s something of a dance,” Wright said. “The prosecution comes in with a real low offer — ‘I’ll tell you this little itty bitty bit of info’ — but the judge replies and says, ‘You have to do better than that.’ My guess is that’s not the last time the judge will tell the government, ‘You have to be more specific,’ but this is the first step in the dance.”