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We talked to El Chapo's lawyer about defending a notorious drug lord

by Keegan Hamilton and David Noriega
Aug 11 2017, 11:26am

Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán is due back in court Monday, and the top item on the agenda will be deciding who gets to defend the accused Mexican drug lord when his trial begins in April.

Right now, the Sinaloa Cartel leader is still officially represented by public defenders — attorneys appointed by the court for people who can’t afford them. That means even though Chapo’s net worth has been estimated at more than $1 billion, U.S. taxpayers have been footing the bill for his legal defense since his extradition from Mexico to New York in January.

As VICE News reported earlier this week, Guzmán recently moved to hire Jeffrey Lichtman, a legendary New York criminal defense attorney who helped keep alleged mob boss John Gotti Jr. out of prison. But before Lichtman and a team of other high-powered attorneys formally take over the case, they want a guarantee that they’ll get paid. The issue isn’t with El Chapo. It’s with the Department of Justice, which could confiscate Lichtman’s paycheck as part of the $14 billion in asset forfeiture it’s seeking to collect from his would-be client.

VICE News spoke recently with Lichtman about the situation with Chapo and the challenges of defending a notorious kingpin. The following transcript of the conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and condensed.

VICE News: How did you wind up representing Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán?

Jeffrey Lichtman: I was referred by some of the public defenders that were on the case. Keep in mind that he doesn’t know any lawyers in America, for the most part. He doesn’t know any of our reputations, doesn’t know any of our pasts, any of our cases. So he really was a blank tablet, so to speak, when he started meeting with lawyers.

As a criminal defense lawyer, it’s really difficult, at least for me, to say, ‘Well, I’ll represent this person but not this one because I’m above it.’ If you’re going to be a criminal defense lawyer and really do it at the highest level, you have to be willing to accept anything and everything. And I understand this case comes with a lot of baggage, mainly because of Guzmán’s reputation and the media basically convicting him before the case even started.

I understand this case comes with a lot of baggage, mainly because of Guzmán’s reputation and the media basically convicting him before the case even started.

The government says Guzmán is not eligible for public counsel, but they also don’t seem to be willing to let him pay for a private attorney. What is he supposed to do?

It’s purely ludicrous. I mean, it’s hypocrisy at the highest level. They claim that he has the money to hire private counsel and they are willing to let him pay for private counsel — they’re just not willing to necessarily allow private counsel to keep that money. So what sane defense lawyer would come into a case of this magnitude, of this complexity, of this amount of work, of a trial that’s set to last four to five months, with the understanding that the government may take the fee down the line?

This hasn’t been going on since yesterday — this has been going on since February or March, when I first started to see him. The first question I had was “Hey, am I going to work for the next year of my life like killing myself for Mr. Guzman and then find out that the government may decide, ‘Well, we can’t find any of his assets, so we’ll just take it from the lawyers.’”

So where exactly does that leave you? He’s retained you, but are you actually working for him or not? What’s the current situation?

I think I’ve seen him 30 times and probably spent certainly well over 100 hours visiting with him and doing my own research on the case and some collateral issues.

I’ve been retained, but I have not entered a notice of appearance yet. We’d like to resolve this fee situation if we can. It puts us in a difficult situation: Why should the government loudly proclaim that the taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for his lawyer but then not do anything to actually cause that to happen?

You’re pretty well known for having represented John Gotti. Do you think there are similarities between the Gotti case and Guzmán’s case?

Oh, absolutely. I mean, the Gotti case, when I came into it, he was guilty before the trial even was remotely starting. It was nearly impossible to find any members of the jury pool who didn’t think he was guilty before the opening statements.

We finally found a jury of 12 that seemingly claimed they could be fair and right, but before opening statements, one of the jurors started weeping and told the judge that she was afraid she was going to get whacked. Those are her words, not mine.

So, yes, I’m used to dealing with clients that society has already discarded, already convicted, and being able to convince [jurors] that maybe everything the government and the press says is not 100 percent accurate.

You’ve been seeing Guzmán regularly for a few months now. What have those interactions been like?

He’s in an incredibly difficult situation. I mean, it’s the most difficult prison situation I have ever seen, and I’ve been to some bizarre prisons in South America visiting potential clients. This one is the absolute worst. He’s stuck in a cell where he has no contact with anyone but lawyers. He has not spoken to his family. He has not had any visits with his family, hasn’t sent or received any cards from his family.

There’s been no contact with other prisoners. He doesn’t see any other prisoners. He has some contact with guards who don’t speak his language. He doesn’t get to go outside and he’s basically locked up 24 hours a day… I believe he’s had some severe deterioration since I’ve been visiting with him, just based on the difficulty of his conditions.

The guy happens to be a delightful, funny guy with a great sense of humor.

I know that the average person is going to say, ‘How could you possibly think that Chapo Guzmán is a decent guy?’ Look, I don’t judge the person for what they’ve done before they come to me. I judge them based on how they treat me. And the guy happens to be a delightful, funny guy with a great sense of humor.

He’s very, very intelligent — highly intelligent. He remembers every last thing that we discussed in our prior meetings. And for that, I have to say, it has not been unenjoyable spending time with him.

His current attorneys have raised the issue that security is so tight at his Manhattan jail — the Metropolitan Correctional Center — that it’s not allowing him to effectively prepare for his trial. Is that a concern for you?

Absolutely. I mean, the government is making this as difficult as possible. They said in their initial statements after he was brought over here from Mexico that there is a mound of evidence, there were a zillion witnesses, there was no chance for him to be acquitted, basically is what they were suggesting.

Yet they’ve made it as difficult as possible for him to defend himself. We have no-contact visits. I can’t sit with papers and go through them one at a time. I’ve got to take them and slap them up against the glass in-between us, and it’s in Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish, he doesn’t speak English. I go in there with an interpreter. You can only imagine how difficult this is. Every interaction we have when we discuss the case is fraught with problems that the average defendant doesn’t have.

The Muslim terrorists that are in the same prison are treated better than Joaquin Guzmán.

The government has taken months just to get his sister cleared to visit him. Like they didn’t know who his sister was? They knew exactly who she was… Now keep in mind when she visits him she’s going to be sitting with a government prosecutor right in that meeting with an interpreter listening to every single thing they discussed. Is that normal? Of course not. The Muslim terrorists that are in the same prison are treated better than Joaquin Guzmán.