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The case against El Chapo: Drugs, murder, and some guys Trump calls "flippers"

“This isn’t Texas. This is Brooklyn. I don’t need President Trump as a witness for us.”

by Keegan Hamilton
Sep 25 2018, 5:31pm

Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn plan to tell the jury an epic tale when they put Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán on trial in just over a month. They’ll explain how he climbed the cartel ranks, rising from a teenage pot farmer to become a drug lord that Colombian cocaine suppliers called “El Rapido” — the fast one — because he moved shipments so quickly into the U.S.

Those stories make up only part of the lengthy list of of evidence, detailed in a Sept. 21 court filing, that prosecutors hope to use against Chapo. But the government also wants to keep jurors from ever hearing other details, including some choice remarks from President Trump.

Trump has used the word "flippers" to refer to former associates who cut deals with the government, a practice he said "almost ought to be illegal." Now, Chapo's prosecutors have asked Judge Brian Cogan to preemptively block any mention of that barb to describe cooperating witnesses in Chapo’s case. Their filing doesn’t mention the president by name, but references to "highly publicized" remarks by an "unnamed government official" make their intention clear.

The case against Chapo may well hinge on the testimony of “flippers.” Multiple former high-level Mexican and Colombian drug traffickers are expected to testify against him, and prosecutors asked for extra precautions to protect them.

Chapo’s lawyers are pushing back on some of the requests and scoffing at others. Trump’s “flippers” comment came up recently in a different federal drug trial in Manhattan, but Jeffrey Lichtman, who previously defended mob boss John Gotti Jr., told VICE News that he never planned to mention the president in the courtroom as part of Chapo’s defense.

“It doesn’t mean I can’t make the argument that these cooperating witnesses have little to no credibility and will say whatever the government wants them to say,” Lichtman said. “This isn’t Texas — this is Brooklyn. I don’t need President Trump as a witness for us.”

A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn declined to comment.

“This isn’t Texas. This is Brooklyn. I don’t need President Trump as a witness for us.”

Though partially redacted, the 97-page court filing (see PDF below), filed last week by the government, lays out the case against Chapo. Prosecutors want to tell the jury how Chapo ruled his empire from behind bars in the ‘90s. They say he built tunnels — “remarkable feats of engineering and construction” — to escape from prison and elude capture. They say that prior to his arrest in 2016, he expanded into the fentanyl business, which fueled the opioid overdose crisis in the United States. And they say he personally executed rivals, specifically one incident in 2006 with members of Los Zetas.

“After having lunch, the defendant interrogated them, had them beaten and then personally shot them both in the head with a long gun,” the court document states. “The defendant then ordered his workers to dig a hole in the ground, light a fire inside the hole, and throw the bodies in the hole to be burned and subsequently buried.”

The list of witnesses against Chapo remains secret but will be revealed once the individuals must testify in open court. There are several likely suspects, including Damaso Lopez, Chapo’s former right-hand man in the Sinaloa Cartel. Lopez, known as El Licenciado was extradited from Mexico in July, and his son is also in U.S. custody and entered into a plea agreement in January.

Another candidate is Vicente Zambada, the son of Chapo’s fellow Sinaloa leader Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who has been in custody and cooperating with U.S. authorities for years. Then there’s Juan Carlos Ramírez-Abadía, a former leader of Colombia’s Norte Del Valle cartel who cooperated in the 2017 prosecution of one of Chapo’s longtime allies and testified that he supplied that Sinaloa cartel with massive shipments of cocaine. Twin brothers Pedro and Margarito Flores, once the top cocaine suppliers in Chicago, are also known to have flipped on Chapo and recorded conversations with him.

This undated combination of file photos from wanted posters released by the U.S. Marshals Service shows Pedro Flores, left, and his twin brother, Margarito Flores.

Previous news reports and other publicly available information, including the Justice Department’s own press releases, have made the deals these “flippers” made the government public information. In the case of the Flores twins, their wives wrote a book detailing how they secretly wiretapped Chapo and other Sinaloa cartel heavyweights before turning themselves in to U.S. law enforcement.

It’s possible that some witnesses will be totally anonymous until they testify, and prosecutors want the judge to take unusual precautions to prevent people from knowing what they look like. Cameras are banned in federal court, which means the media relies on sketch artists to portray scenes in the courtroom. Citing “extreme danger” to cooperating witnesses and their families, prosecutors have asked for restrictions that would prohibit sketch artists from drawing the faces of people who testify.

But others have pictures that can easily be found on Google. Even so, if they take the stand against Chapo, the public may not get to find out how they have aged since.

VICE News spoke with three courtroom sketch artists, all of whom have worked Chapo’s pretrial hearings. They said they have encountered similar restrictions in terrorism trials, particularly when undercover law enforcement officers have been called to testify, but it’s unusual to be told not to draw somebody whose name and likeness is already known, such as the potential star witnesses in Chapo’s case

“Nobody is ever going to say ‘I saw a drawing, so I know it was you,’ but the truth is a drawing can be very, very close,” said Christine Cornell, a sketch artist who works for NBC News and CNN, among others. “It’s an association that can definitely narrow it down for them. If they have your name, obviously they can know it’s you, but if they don’t have your name and they’re looking to see who is ratting them out, it can do the trick.”

While trying to restrict the media on one hand, the the prosecution is also seeking to use the press to help make its case. For example, the government wants jurors to see parts of Chapo’s videotaped interview with Rolling Stone — but not hear about “Hunting El Chapo,” a nonfiction book by former DEA agent Andrew Hogan.

“The government is cherry-picking specific incidents from media accounts to support its arguments,” said Eduardo Balarezo, another attorney who represents Chapo. “They have cited multiple articles but they don’t want him to be able to do the same to defend himself and have a fair trial.”

Prosecutors also appear to be keeping up with the news and reading between the lines when Chapo’s attorneys speak to reporters. Their recent court filing mentions quotes from Lichtman that appeared in the New York Post and from Balarezo in Time, suggesting their strategy would be “to put the government on trial.”

Chapo’s lawyers didn’t use the word “flippers” in any quotes that appeared in print, but they did call the DEA’s tactics “unethical or illegal.” They also said the case relies on testimony by “mercenary, dishonest people.”

Cover image: In this Jan. 19, 2017 file photo provided U.S. law enforcement, authorities escort Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, center, from a plane to a waiting caravan of SUVs at Long Island MacArthur Airport, in Ronkonkoma, N.Y.