el chapo

El Chapo’s Defense Lawyer Knows the Art of Cross-Examining a Rat

Jeffrey Lichtman after opening arguments in November. Photo: Mary Altaffer/AP/REX/Shutterstoc

For weeks, while commuting to the Brooklyn courthouse from his Westchester County home, Jeffrey Lichtman, one of the lawyers currently defending Mexican drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera, a.k.a. El Chapo, was feeling frustrated, angry, sick to his stomach.

It was a talking problem. Lichtman, the Newark, New Jersey–born defender of gangsters like John Gotti Jr. and gangstas The Game and Fat Joe, wasn’t doing enough of it. Days had passed in the biggest single narco-trafficking case ever held in America, and Lichtman, the sort of barrister who used to be called “a mouthpiece,” had no choice but “to sit on my ass and seethe.”

This was the upshot of the arrangement Lichtman had worked out with William Purpura and Eduardo Balarezo, his fellow lawyers on the case. With government bringing dozens of “cooperating” (as in already convicted) witnesses to testify against Guzman in hopes reducing their multi-decade sentences, the trio of advocates had decided to split up the load. It was the luck of the draw that none of the 53-year-old Lichtman’s assigned rats had yet been called. The “mouthpiece” had been silenced and it was killing him.

At the outset of process, back in early November, it had been a different story. Offering the defense’s opening statement, Lichtman had caused an international sensation. The government was ballyhooing El Chapo as the ultimate big fish, “the most ruthless, dangerous, and feared man on the planet.” This was a complete myth, Lichtman said.

Certainly Chapo had captured headlines with his daring escapes from maximum-security prisons, running record shipments of tons of cocaine into the U.S., as well as allegedly causing wholesale death and social misery in various wars of machismo and avarice against rival cartels. But the fact of the matter, Lichtman told the court, was that El Chapo wasn’t even the jefe of his own crew, the Sinaloa Cartel. The real boss was Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who, while named in the government’s indictment, still, conveniently, remained at large south of the border.

The entire Chapo trial was a part of vast cover-up, Lichtman said. “This is a case that will require you to throw out much of what you were taught to believe in about the way governments work and how they behave, governments in South and Central American and Mexico and even the United States.” The defense would show “that government officials at the very highest level can be bribed, can conspire to commit horrible crimes — that American law enforcement agents can also be crooked.”

These comments, along with the accusation that “hundreds of millions of dollars have been paid to the current and former presidents of Mexico,” did much to blow a gasket in the heads of the U.S. Attorney’s office prosecutors. Intimating that Lichtman’s theory of the case might as well been ripped from the headlines of the Alex Jones Show, the government sought to strike the mouthpiece’s entire opening statement from the record. Notably unamused federal judge Brian Cogan disallowed this, but admonished Lichtman, saying he had gone “far afield of direct or circumstantial proof,” adding that the lawyer had “handed out a promissory note your case is not going to cash.” The uproar went global when then Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto and his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, issued angry denials calling Lichtman’s allegations “defamatory,” “absolutely false,” and “reckless.”

For Lichtman, a man who saw himself as the winner of unwinnable cases, worldwide conspiracy was an inside straight: very difficult to achieve, but not impossible. After all, you pitched to the jury they put in front of you. Looking out at the representatives of the Brooklyn working class occupying the box, it was a fair assessment that few, if any, trusted the authorities to tell the truth about anything. Establishing a shadow of doubt in the mind of only one of 12 would be enough. A hung jury was tantamount to a win. To beat the Feds in the Guzman case was an assured ticket to mouthpiece Hall of Fame. If worse comes to worst, you were still the guy who defended El Chapo, bragging rights no matter the outcome.

Jeffrey Lichtman was familiar with the calculus. With 28 years in the game, hair now firmly in the salt-and-pepper mode but still retaining a handsome boychik appearance, he is among the last of a breed, the big city “mob lawyer.” It is a status that Lichtman came by legitimately, having apprenticed himself to two of the most revered names in the field, the recently retired Gerald Shargel and the late James La Rossa.

Shargel, the gentleman scholar of mob lawyering and the rough-and-tumble La Rossa, the subject of a 1977 New York Magazine profile by Denis Hamill titled “The Bionic Mouth of White Collar Crime,” will be forever linked in the continuity of mouthpiece jurisprudence. For years La Rossa was the personal attorney for Big Paul Castellano, ruler of the Gambino Family. When Big Paulie was shot dead in front of the Sparks steakhouse in 1985, the alleged orchestrator of the crime, John Gotti Sr. hired Shargel to keep him out of jail, which he did, for a while.

“Gerry Shargel was the smartest man I ever met, a true gentleman,” said Lichtman, who spent seven years working for the near universally esteemed counsel. But as time passed, Lichtman said, “I began to realize I was a lot more like Jimmy,” i.e. a pugnacious, sarcastic, nasty, and fearless spark plug of a man who once said it was not his job to prove the innocence of his clients but rather “to attempt to stop the prosecution from proving their guilt.”

Throughout his career, Lichtman had taken “a perverse delight” in cross-examining government cooperators like the singular lineup the prosecution presented in the Chapo case. These included the droll, patron-like Jesus Garcia “El Rey” Zambada, (brother of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada); the fearful, desperate Miguel “El Gordo” Martínez, who said Chapo had tried to kill him three times; and the spectral Juan Carlos Ramírez Abadia, a.k.a. the vampiric “El Chupeta,” recipient of four separate face-lifts aimed at changing his identity.

After all, to attack a rat on cross was an art, a Dao. You had to listen carefully to the government’s direct examination. This was the basic script, crafted through numerous rehearsals in various federal lock-ups over a period of months, sometimes years, until the story the government wanted the jury to hear was set in stone. It was the job of the defense to sift through the endless piles of often heavily redacted material to find, as Lichtman said, “those precious hidden needles in the haystack, the stuff you can use.” The more despicable the collaborator could be made to look in comparison to the defendant, even someone like El Chapo, the better.

So it was that, last Thursday morning, Lichtman woke up feeling “great.” Finally, he got himself a witness.

This was the 52-year old Colombian Jorge Milton Cifuentes-Villa. Jorge Milton gave his allegiance to no cartel, but rather to his own blood, the iconic Cifuentes-Villa clan. The clan was composed of Jorge Milton’s charismatic older sibling Fernando, known as Pacho (murdered 2007); brother Hildebrando (“Alex”); sisters Dolly and Lucia; and nephew Jaime Alberto Roll. Operating as an independent entity, the Cifuentes-Villas sold top-grade Colombian cocaine to big-time narco operations including El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel for decades. Prior to his 2012 arrest in Venezuela, Jorge Milton estimated he personally had a hand in smuggling over 200 tons of cocaine into the U.S.

However, as demonstrated by a scam to create a fund aimed at buying 7 million hectares of the Amazonian rain forest to create a carbon-free sanctuary for the region’s indigenous people (money collected went to companies owned by the Cifuentes-Villa clan), Jorge Milton was far more than just one more agrarian hoodlum. He was a world-class con man of seemingly endless resource and sophistication, which was shown by his choice of nickname, “don Simon,” an homage to Simon Templar, the elegant charmer played Roger Moore in the 1960’s TV series The Saint.

It was into this sticky web that Lichtman charged, opening his cross with the all-inclusive, “Mr. Cifuentes … you’ve been committing crimes since you were a child; you have been lying since were a child. Isn’t that right?”

Taking this in, the balding, bespectacled Jorge Milton, attired in drab prison fatigues, raised his gaze and said, “That is correct, sir.”

Thus, the terms of engagement were set. What followed was a semi-epic game of cat and mouse, with Lichtman lobbing a fusillade of George Foreman–style haymakers, most of which Cifuentes successfully parried like a furtive Ali. Asked by counsel if he had indeed kidnapped his own grandmother, Jorge Milton shrugged and said such things happened in all families. When Lichtman began to pummel the witness with questions about his tax status, Cifuentes scoffed at so puny a charge by raising his right hand and saying “guilty.”

Lichtman was not deterred. It was no easy task to undermine the moral credibility of a witness who has already admitted to trying to kill a fellow prison inmate with a cyanide-laced arepa, as well as supplying weapons to right-wing death squads, but little by little, the Jersey-born mouthpiece was closing the distance. He scored heavily with saga of the death of Cifuentes’s partner, Humberto Ojeda. Back in the 1990s, when Jorge Milton was living in the border town of McAllen, Texas, under one of his many fake names, he and Ojeda were making an alleged $100 million a month dealing cocaine primarily through the Sinaloa Cartel. This ended in 1997 when Ojeda was shot dead in his car in Mexico. The dealer’s young child, in the vehicle at the time, was witness to her father’s death. Outraged, Cifuentes later found out that El Chapo’s partner, the aforementioned Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada was responsible, ostensibly because Ojeda had the nerve to build a mansion that was bigger than his. Yet Jorge Milton continued to do business with the Sinaloa Cartel.

It was an opening and Lichtman pounced. “Here was a man who killed your partner, someone you regarded as your brother, and yet you still were willing to deal drugs with him.”

“Correct, sir,” Cifuentes said weakly, the memory momentarily searing through forced bravado. Asked why he would do such a thing, Cifuentes admitted, “because of my greed.”

It was high theater and the jury loved it, especially when Lichtman began looking at his watch as the rattled Jorge Milton dithered over an answer. It was an old courtroom trick, dating back to Lichtman mentor Jimmy La Rossa and way beyond. There was also the added attraction that Cifuentes had cheekily belittled El Chapo during his testimony. It was Chapo’s bad decisions that caused the “loss” of two separate major shipments adding up to as much as 14 tons of coke. It was also Chapo’s fault that the government had been able to crack the encryption system Jorge Milton had set up to defeat wire taps. The drug lord’s engineer had not paid for the proper licenses, Cifuentes told the federal prosecutor.

There was more than a touch of class prejudice in the Colombian’s assessment of his erstwhile Mexican partner’s mescal-guzzling peasant ways. When Cifuentes gifted Chapo with a million-dollar helicopter so he could fly in a “civilized way,” the Colombian said he could see an acquisitional gleam in Guzmán’s “shining little eyes.” Under ordinary circumstances, Chapo might have sent an army of sicarios to kill Cifuentes for such insults, but here in Brooklyn, he had to rely on Jeffrey Lichtman, his mouthpiece proxy warrior.

Lichtman might have succeeded in vanquishing Cifuentes at that point, but the drug dealer was saved by the bell. It was 4:30 Thursday afternoon, the end of the court’s day. The session wouldn’t resume until Monday morning, giving Jorge Milton time to reconfigure his strategy. From then on (the back-and-forth wouldn’t end until Tuesday morning) the battle was fought on fairly even terms. Lichtman continued to get his shots in here and there, but Cifuentes countered skillfully by asking his inquisitor to repeat complicated questions and helpfully offering to correct “little mistakes” in the lawyer’s evidentiary information. Frustrated by such tactics, Lichtman got hung up on tedious details and occasionally raised his voice, prompting Judge Cogan to intercede by saying “no yelling in the courtroom, Mr. Lichtman.”

This slow-mo endgame gave the observer ample time to muse on Lichtman’s objectives and the El Chapo trial in general. There is no doubt Jeffrey Lichtman is an excellent lawyer, a man who delivers on the trio of qualities announced on his website, “Experience, Tenacity, Results.” But in the Chapo trial, the defender of John Gotti Jr. often appeared a man out of time, and place. For instance, the Spanish-speaking members of the media, who make up the large majority of daily press corps, were rolling their eyes every time the attorney (and his fellow Jersey lawyer William Purpura) mangled the pronunciation of place names like Jalisco and Culiacán.

It wasn’t a small thing. The idea that a crook of the magnitude of El Chapo Guzmán, who rarely set foot on U.S. soil, is being defended by lawyers (rumored collective fee: $5 million) who don’t speak a word of Spanish strikes the courtroom buff as edging toward grounds for appeal. Old-school mob lawyers can’t properly represent these guys no matter how many episodes of Narcos they watch. It made you wonder, for about 100th time, why this case was in Brooklyn to begin with, outside of the fact that Loretta Lynch, former head of the Eastern District and Obama’s last attorney general, said it should be. Legally, and dramatically, the trial belonged in Mexico City, where, as dicey as that might be, it would actually mean something. It was that kind of thinking that brought you back to Lichtman’s much-derided opening statement that despite Chapo’s manifest guilt, the whole thing was a show trial, not quite on the level.

Not that Lichtman had any reason to despair. The mouthpiece from Newark had done his job. He’d served the interests of his client. Indeed, El Chapo, who looked intermittently disconnected earlier, was clearly engaged, writing feverishly on a legal pad. A natural boss, don Joaquin had his own ideas about how to attack enemies like the weasel Jorge Milton.

In the end, the man the government called “the most feared man on the planet” had obvious liked what he’d seen from his counsel, giving Lichtman a hardy handshake when barrister finally sat down. Lichtman nodded in acknowledgement. He’d pleased the man who was paying him. A mouthpiece couldn’t hope for more than that.

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