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El Chapo's Top Lawyer Talks About What It's Like Defending an Infamous Drug Lord

José Refugio Rodríguez disclosed details about the Chapo's legal strategy in the face of possible extradition. He also said the kingpin remains determined to make a movie about his life, and discussed Sean Penn’s betrayal of Kate del Castillo

by Jan-Albert Hootsen
Mar 10 2016, 5:40pm

Foto di Rebecca Blackwell/AP Photo

For the last two months, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán has been locked up in the same maximum-security prison he tunneled out of last July. But if the world's most notorious drug lord is out of sight, he's definitely not out of mind. Never before in his career has El Chapo seemed quite so omnipresent as he does today.

"Joaquín Guzmán has become a legend. It's like a snowball, there are things said about him no one even knows where they're coming from," said José Refugio Rodríguez, Chapo's chief lawyer. "I am stunned by his media power."

Last weekend Rodríguez sat down for a lengthy interview with VICE News in which he disclosed details about the short and long game in the legal strategy in the face of efforts to extradite his client. The 60-year-old lawyer also revealed that Chapo's determination to see a movie made about his life is as firm as it ever was, and still involves Mexican telenovela actress Kate del Castillo.

A veteran of defending capos, the attorney mused on what it is like to represent the most infamous of them all, in the midst of a media storm and what looks like a family feud. He refers to his client as Joaquín or Señor Guzmán, but never as Chapo.

Rodríguez emerged as by far the highest profile member of Guzmán's defense team after the leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel was recaptured on January 8. Soon after that, he was notified of requests to extradite him to the United States.

The soft-spoken lawyer made it clear that it is Chapo who sets the strategy during the 30-minute meetings they have had every week now that the capo is back behind bars. "There's not much time to talk," he said. "During those conversations, he takes decisions over how to proceed."

Chapo's lawyer José Refugio Rodríguez. (Photo by Jan-Albert Hootsen/VICE News.)

At the moment, what Chapo wants is to negotiate a deal with the US authorities that could lead him to drop his fight against extradition and plead guilty in a US court. Chapo is motivated, Rodríguez insists, by sleep deprivation caused by roll calls in the night, which has sent his blood pressure to dangerously high levels. The imprisoned capo has also complained of being cold, constant surveillance, the excessive use of police dogs, and restrictions on his visitation rights.

"Physically he's in very bad shape," Rodríguez said. "If they don't let him sleep, he'll die. What would you prefer, to die or to be imprisoned somewhere else?"

Related: El Chapo Hates Mexican Prison So Much He Wants to Be Extradited ASAP

Rodríguez has been making this point for over a week in different media outlets, carefully evading questions about whether Chapo would offer to tell the US authorities sensitive information about underground associates, or corrupt officials, in exchange for a good deal.

But in the interview with VICE News, the lawyer also revealed that if parallel legal efforts to force improvements in Chapo's conditions in Mexico are successful, then he will embark on a full-on battle to keep his client in the country where his chances of walking free again are much higher.

"If we can establish the conditions that will guarantee Joaquín Guzmán's life isn't in jeopardy in Mexico, we will fight tooth and nail to keep him here," he said, during the interview in an upscale restaurant in the western city of Morelia.

"Why? Because through my experience with other cases, I don't see how he would be sentenced to less than 20 years in prison there," the lawyer added. "Here in Mexico, if we don't manage to get him out in less than 10 or 12 years, he would be entitled to preventive imprisonment. Here he could go out and spend the last years of his life at home."

Hours after the interview, Rodríguez announced that Chapo has been granted an injunction against the harsh conditions, which includes the order that he must be guaranteed the possibility of longer periods of uninterrupted sleep. According to Rodríguez, the capo has since been allowed to sleep for six hours on at least one occasion since then.

Related: 'El Chapo' Mythology Grows in Drug Lord's Home State of Sinaloa

National Security Commissioner Renato Sales released a statement on Monday insisting that "the Mexican state will not lend itself to blackmail or media strategies."

The phrase appeared to respond to Rodríguez's allegations of "torture" that have also been pushed by Chapo's 26-year-old wife Emma Coronel. The former small-town beauty queen had never spoken to the media before, but last month suddenly began giving interviews claiming that the government was trying to kill her husband so that he did not reveal what he knew to the US authorities.

Sales' comments also seemed aimed at a new media furor sparked by an interview given to the Guardian by Rosa Isela Guzmán, a woman who claims to be Chapo's eldest daughter. She said that Chapo contributed to political campaigns, though she didn't specify which, and visited her twice at her home in California while he was on the run. She also made the highly sensitive allegation that he was captured, in February 2014, because he was betrayed by his closest associate in the Sinaloa cartel, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada.

Related: After El Chapo: The World's 10 Most Wanted Drug Lords

The explosive allegation appears to have upset other members of Chapo's family, particularly Coronel.

The mother of two of Chapo's children — he's estimated to have as many as 18 — released a statement in which she claimed to have no knowledge of Rosa Isela Guzmán. Coronel also berated her for releasing "very delicate information that has no basis in fact."

After initially defending her statements to the Guardian, Guzmán gave an interview to Radio Fórmula in which she claimed she had been libeled by the paper. She put particular emphasis on the "respect" she has for El Mayo.

Rodríguez has sought to retain some distance from what he has called "a family conflict," but even he says he has been taken aback by the media storm around every new development.

Watch: Cashing in on 'El Chapo'

The surreal soap opera around Chapo began immediately after his recapture when the Mexican attorney general said the manhunt for the capo had been aided by surveillance of film industry people exploring the idea of a biopic.

The following day, Hollywood actor Sean Penn published an article in Rolling Stone magazine based on an interview with Chapo that had been set up with the help of Kate del Castillo, who Penn wrote was heading the film project.

Related: Sean Penn Interviewed El Chapo — And It Helped Lead to the Drug Lord's Capture

After that, leaked text messages exposed Chapo's flirty communications with Del Castillo, while government sources said she was being investigated for possible money laundering.

Talk of the movie has since subsided, but Rodríguez said that the project is still very much on the agenda.

"Guzmán hasn't said anything about Sean Penn to me, but he still wants the movie to be made," he said. "And it will be made."

Rodríguez said he first found out about the biopic when he was approached by another one of Chapo's lawyers to look over a contract involving a couple of Argentine producers. Associated with Oliver Stone, the director of Natural Born Killers and Wall Street, the producers were also present at the meeting that led to Penn's article.

He said that Guzmán had originally hoped Del Castillo would play his wife in the film. It was later decided that she was too old for the role, but the lawyer said Chapo then named her as his representative.

"The movie was not going to be made with Joaquín's money," Rodríguez said, "The filmmakers wanted him to sign over the rights of his name, so they could get proper financing in Hollywood and look for class actors, the best director, and the best screenwriter to make it a super production."

The Rolling Stone article was tangential to the bigger project, but Rodríguez said it created problems. He said he was told that Del Castillo felt betrayed by Penn and the producers, and disillusioned because she "owned" the interview as much as the actor. He also hinted that Penn had disregarded agreements not to publish a photograph of him and Chapo, and a video of the capo answering questions, which were intended only to be used to backup the claims made in the piece.

Given the fallout from the article, Del Castillo's legal problems, and Chapo's recapture, it is hard to imagine things picking up where they left off. But Rodríguez insisted the idea of a biopic remains substantially the same.

"The project is still here, and Kate will play a role in it," he said.

Related: The Actress Who Linked Up Sean Penn with El Chapo Was Under Surveillance Since 2014

Dressed in a blue sweater with dark glasses, the lawyer looked tired as he explained that the Chapo rollercoaster was taking its toll on him as well.

"Please excuse the bags under my eyes, I've been working around the clock in recent days," he said during the interview that was constantly interrupted by calls and text messages from other clients and journalists. "I sometimes feel like a PR-manager," he smiled faintly.

Rodríguez was born in Culiacán, the capital of Guzmán's home state of Sinaloa and birthplace to some of the country's most notorious drug lords. When he was one year old, his family moved to the city of Apatzingán in the Tierra Caliente, or Hot Land, region of Michoacán, another area notorious for its history of drug trafficking and organized crime.

He's been a lawyer for 36 years. Former clients include Armando Valencia, a notorious figure from Michoacán's organized crime scene in the 1990's. Today, he also represents Inés Coronel, Guzmán's father-in-law who is also an alleged heavyweight in the Sinaloa Cartel, as well as one of Emma Coronel's brothers.

"I've had the opportunity to work in many important cases," he said. "I've worked with Colombians, Mexicans, members of organized crime."

Related: El Chapo's Beauty Queen Wife Says She Fears for His Life

The lawyer said he had no prior relationship with Guzmán before he was contacted by the drug lord's family last year, and that he first spoke to Chapo in April during four lengthy interviews.

"I was surprised how much trust he has placed in me. It certainly raises the stakes. I don't want to let him down," he said. "I like him."

Rodríguez said he had no moral objection to defending such a notorious client accused of moving massive amounts of drugs and fueling some of the worst violence in Mexico's ongoing drug war, which is estimated to have claimed more than 100,000 lives in the last decade.

"Look, what I know about Guzmán is what's in his case files. It says there that he could be convicted for drug trafficking and organized crime," he said. "I am not one to judge beyond the facts. And this much is true: when you deal with a person, as time passes a bond of affection is formed."

Over the years a number of lawyers working with members of organized crime have been murdered, but Rodríguez says he has never received "a bad word from anyone," not even his client's rivals.

"I have represented Armando Valencia, and in that case, in Michoacán, there were threats, there was danger. I didn't even go to Michoacán for seven years afterwards," he said. "There was real danger back then, but nothing of the sort in Guzmán's case."

And, as he squares up to what he expects to be "a long battle" to improve his client's prison conditions in Mexico and secure an advance plea bargain in the US, he even allows himself to dream a bit.

"If in Mexico his due process isn't respected, I reckon that Joaquín could walk, and if that happened and we would be able to avoid extradition," the lawyer said. "It would be the absolute high point of my career. I would be able to retire after that. I would like to head back to the countryside, spend time with my children, and tend to my papaya plantation near Apatzingán."

Related: The Year in Mexico's Drug Wars: A Jailbreak, a Chocolate Cake, and a Washed-Up Strategy

Follow Jan-Albert Hootsen on Twitter: @Jayhootsen

Tagged:
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