The Defense Attorney Who Cuts Deals for Cartel Leaders

By
Photo: Sullivan/Getty Images

Joaquin Perez, 65
Criminal Attorney
Miami, Florida

My practice is mostly criminal defense for high-end drug traffickers. I specialize in extradition cases, where the U.S. is invoking extraterritorial jurisdiction to bring people from different parts of Latin America for prosecution in the United States. From Colombia, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras. Those are the main ones.

One of my big breaks came in 1990, when I was hired to go to Colombia by a man named Leonidas Vargas. He happened to be a very wealthy drug trafficker, and he wanted me to represent a group of pilots that had been arrested in the U.S. In that time, the drug dealers were idolized in Colombia — Pablo Escobar and so on and so forth. There weren’t a lot of American lawyers at that time willing to go to Colombia. Just to give you an idea, the insurance companies would not allow you to travel to Colombia in private planes then because they were afraid the planes were going to be stolen!

This was the time of the big cartels. Colombia was, for the most part, a failed state. The government controlled one part of the country. The FARC, the left-wing organization, controlled another part. And the AUC, the right-wing paramilitary organization, controlled the third part. Each of them levied taxes from the drug traffickers in their territory to permit transportation from one area to another.

I developed contacts with people, politicians, and high-ranking members of the law-enforcement community. In 1997, I met Carlos Castaño, who headed the AUC, and later, other high-end players like Salvatore Mancuso, who became the head of the AUC after Castaño died.

These guys were very powerful, very wealthy. They controlled a standing army of over 30,000 people. You couldn’t even quantify the amount of drugs that flowed through the area under their control. Through representing them, I was introduced to high-end traffickers like Julio Correa and Nicolas Bergonzoli, who I would also come to represent.

For a long time, they had operated with impunity. But in the late ’90s, as a result of Plan Colombia with Clinton, the Colombian government began taking back control over the country. The extradition treaty between Colombia and the U.S., which had been suspended, was reinstated. As the government asserted control, and these groups began slowly to dissolve, some of these individuals who had been indicted for drug-related charges in the U.S. realized that they were no longer insulated from prosecution, and they had to start thinking in terms of arranging agreements.

To do this type of work was certainly more exciting than being behind a desk in my office. Just to give you an example, I remember meeting once with Carlos Castaño. This must have been in 2002. And the place where we met was a kind of makeshift hospital. It was a tent outside. I was talking to him about these serious matters pertaining to his indictment. There was a soldier who had been injured. He had lost his leg, and he was losing blood. He was placed on the gurney next to us, and he was being attended to by a nurse. The entire time we were talking, he was immediately to my left, losing blood and probably dying. I never had an experience like that before. It was a nightmare. My client didn’t blink an eye. That’s the place he chose for the meeting — because it happened to be the only place that had a desk where I could work.

I found the work fascinating because it was so complex, and so inextricably connected to the political situation. You had a political structure that was heavily infiltrated by drug traffickers. Each of these factions were signing peace treaties, and negotiating very intensely for high stakes. How does a person with an army of 30,000 begin to lay down arms and come to an agreement?

This kind of extradition work, where the client was arranging a self-surrender, became really a new area of practice. Put it this way: In 1991, if I had told a high-end client that I wanted to help him be extradited, I would probably have been killed on the spot! But by 1997 and beyond, it became a very normal thing to do, and the flood of extraditions really increased.

During this time, I had continued to do conventional defense — preparing for trials, representing my clients in court, and so forth. But over time, I realized that oftentimes you don’t get the best result by going to trial. This idea that you have a Sixth Amendment right to go to trial — that’s something of a myth. Because when you exercise that right, at least in federal court, you get punished. You get hammered. You’re going to get the maximum sentence. And the government wins something like 95 percent of federal cases. So now, I’ve really ended up with this specialization of focusing on doing agreements for high-level clients. And it’s really the opposite from the kind of work I did earlier in my career.

For most drug cases, the sentencing guidelines require a minimum of ten years to life in prison. The judge has no discretion to alter that. But the prosecutors do. So the only way to break that is by cooperating with them, by providing information that leads to the prosecution of other people. If you have a major drug trafficker who is looking at 40 years in jail, and you can get less than 6 years by negotiating, then that’s a pretty good outcome — much better than going to trial.

When you’re doing conventional defense, preparing to go to trial, you present your client as a very nice guy. You tell everyone that they have the wrong person, that your client is wrongfully accused, and that everyone is lying about it. When you are representing a high-end defendant to negotiate an extradition, you do the opposite. You tell the government, “My guy is so bad, not only has he done a lot of bad things, he’s also done a lot of bad things that you don’t know about. He’s going to put away 20 people who are much bigger than him.”

You have to make them as useful as possible to the prosecutors. That’s how you get the best outcome for your client. I often have to prepare what they call a “proffer,” a summary of the evidence that my client is going to be able to offer to the government. Which means, in essence, I have to do the prosecution’s job for them. So, for example, person X is arrested with 40 kilos in Dallas. The government wants to find out who the people behind it are, which drug cartel is behind it. So your job is to get this stuff from the client — the photographs, the evidence — put it together in a package, and send it to the prosecution, so they can see how useful your client is going to be. This is what convinces them to meet with my client and to make a deal.

When you are representing high-end people, the threats are not — I’ve never had a situation. If you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing, and they see that you are working, the clients are never the problem. Maybe your client’s enemies — those are the ones you have to be careful with.

When I was representing Carlos Castaño, I was told that if I ever went back to Colombia, I was going to be killed. While he was in the process of working out his agreement with the United States, there were members of his organization who felt threatened, who didn’t want that to happen.

The FBI called me and confirmed that some people had been contracted to kill me. They had picked that up on wiretaps in Colombia. As it turns out, they didn’t kill me; they killed him. That happened in 2004.

People ask, “Have you ever had a conflict with a client?” No. I trust them and they are supposed to trust me. In my 38 years of practice, I’ve never written out an agreement for my services. I don’t work with a contract. I do it with a handshake.

I don’t know if I’m No. 1, but I’ve certainly handled a lot of these extradition cases. On average, I handle 20 or 30 cases a year. The type of work I do is very unique. When you hire a firm in New York, you hire the firm; you don’t hire a lawyer. In my type of work, they hire me.

Usually, I’m not in a position to relay work to anyone else. A high-end client who’s willing to pay X amount of money is paying to have my undivided attention. I have a case right now in Oklahoma City. And on my way back from there, I had to fly to Dallas to stop by the jail, so I could bring a client a picture. The picture was sent to me from Colombia through email. I had to print it and bring it to him. It was a picture of the guy, his wife, and his three kids sitting in a bathtub. That’s what he wanted.

Sometimes, it’s like dealing with babies. By this I mean that they are suddenly very dependent upon your help. Because the kind of people I represent typically have acquired money, they have been in a position of telling people what to do. When they’re in jail, they continue to want to tell people what to do, but they’ve lost control.

But I understand. If you’re in that position, you’re far away from your family, so you want to have something to cling to. That’s what gives strength to the inmate — to think of their family, to know they have someone waiting for them when they get out of jail.

Obviously, the most important thing is whether you get a good result for them. But an extremely significant part of my practice is to show the client that you are thinking about them, that you care. Sometimes, I go see people on weekends — in jail. And that makes a difference. It shows that I haven’t forgotten about them. Which, of course, is very easy for someone in jail to feel that way.

I always tell people that I have to charge more for cases where the person is innocent. It sounds like I’m joking, but really, the cases that hurt the most are the ones where your client may be innocent. With the people who are guilty, where the evidence is clear — they’re caught with the drugs, caught with the money — they’re very easy to represent, because they don’t have a choice. We need to set a deal.

But on the opposite side, well, it’s similar to the conversation that I had with a client yesterday, who I believe to be innocent. I said, “If you go to trial, you have a 90 percent chance of winning and a 10 percent chance of losing. But the 10 percent, if you lose, you’re going to get 30 years.” That’s when it really gets unfair. You sometimes have to make decisions that are not necessarily very pleasant.

I once represented a 19-year-old kid who was extradited. I kept on telling the prosecutors, “No, that’s not the guy that you want. It’s somebody else.” But they would not listen to me. And the prosecutors told me, “You have to make a decision to plead guilty or not by Thursday.” Okay? And this was on Tuesday. It’s painful. You anguish. You know that the person is not guilty.

A lot of times, rather than confess that they made a mistake, the prosecutors tell you, “We’ve spent a lot of money extraditing this person. We don’t want to look bad with the media. If you sign the plea, we’re going to let him go immediately, and he doesn’t have to go to jail. But he has to plead guilty.”

The reality is that that’s a form of extortion. But you have to play along with it. Because you don’t gain anything by challenging the people in power. The prosecutor has power, and you need to channel that power to better serve your client. So you have to bite the bullet. You cannot be antagonistic.

Oftentimes, I get home and I’m so pissed, because I know that this is not right, and I’m just beside myself. It’s a terrible system. It’s really cynical.

But I don’t regret having followed this path. I only hope that I continue to do it. I find what I do so exciting. I find what I do challenging.

I find that in every facet of life — whether you’re a doctor, a lawyer, a drug trafficker, a union member — there are some people who are better than others. The ones who are better, who do well in the drug world, are the ones I represent. These are the people who, even if they don’t have an education, have the ability to rise above the ranks. They are always smarter, more sophisticated, and more street savvy.

These people who are involved in the drug trade are pragmatic people. They are in it to make money. They are not sending drugs to the United States to kill people in poor neighborhoods. They’re doing that to make some money.

But at a certain point, it’s not about making more money or getting more respect, it’s a question of being addicted to the challenge. They get addicted to this type of work, and they cannot break away from it. It’s the same as people who are addicted to cocaine or heroin.

I asked the guy I’m representing in Texas right now, “Why did you keep on doing this?” He said, “It’s just like a vice. You can’t stop. It didn’t make any difference anymore if I did ten loads, and I lost five or six of them. It was the excitement.” He even said, “I’m glad that I got caught because I wasn’t happy. I knew that I was addicted to it.” I swear that’s what he told me. And I’ve heard that from several people now: “I was just addicted to it.”

The Defense Attorney Who Cuts Deals for Cartel Leaders