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El Chapo's New Legal Team

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman has hired private counsel to represent him on the Indictment in the Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn).

I think the federal defenders representing him until now have done an outstanding job. But I also think the private lawyers he hired are excellent. Who are they?

Jeffrey Lichtman, Marc Fernich (both in New York), Eduardo Balarezo (Washington, DC) and William Purpura (Baltimore).

While the media mentions in passing Balarezo was involved in the recent case of Alfredo Beltran-Leyva (sentenced to life a few months ago), I think his addition is significant. [More...]

The Beltran-Leyva cartel (BLO)used to be part of the Sinaloa cartel, but split from them in 2009 and they've been bitter enemies ever since. A lot of the killings since in Sinaloa and elswhere in Mexico have been attributed to their ongoing war. The split happened when Beltran-Leyva blamed Sinaloa, and El Chapo in particular, for the raid that killed Arturo Beltran-Levya. Prior to then, BLO had a piece of several of the big loads from Colombia that El Chapo is now charged with. Thus, Balarezo and Purpura have already seen a lot of the evidence that will be used against El Chapo. Several of the cooperating witnesses are the same (The names are being so closely guarded by both sides in El Chapo's case, that even though they come up in Beltran-Levya's case, along with descriptions of their anticipated testimony, I'm not going to name them.)

The lead prosecutor in Alfredo Beltran-Leyva's case, Andrea Goldbaarg, is one of the proseuctors on El Chapo's case. So Balarezo is well familiar with her tactics and arguments. (If I recall correctly, she tranferred from the NDDDS in Washington to the U.S. Attorney's office in Brooklyn at the tail end of Beltran-Leyva's case.

Balarezo also makes sense because of his very recent experience challenging Beltran-Leyva's extradition on grounds of violating the rule of specialty, which is what El Chapo is arguing in his present case. Having read all the pleadings in Beltran-Leyva, the extradition order and several of the court hearing transcripts, I think Balarezo did a really good job on that issue.I also think his interpretation of the extradition order was correct. It all came down to the accurate translation of the Spanish word "accuerda" vs. the word "accuerdo." Each was used in different sections of the extradition order. I think Balarezo's spanish interpreter was correct and the Judge was wrong to go with the Government's version.

Jeffrey Lichtman has a terrific reputation and really wide experience. He and Marc Fernich were co-counsel during their successful defense of John Gotti, Jr. when the acquitted on some counts and hung on another. The government dropped the case. In a new racketeering case in Brooklyn, Lichtman is representing the underboss of the Lucchese family and Fernich is representing his son. These two have obviously worked closely with each other for a long time.

None of these lawyers are with a big firm -- Lichtman has two associates and Fernich is on his own. As he says on his website, "One lawyer, one case."

Now, will the change of counsel actually occur? The Federal Defenders on the case filed a letter with the court today confirming El Chapo has reached an agreement with private counsel, but say the new lawyers are not going to enter until they receive assurance from DOJ that their fees won't be forfeited.

In order to take a cent from El Chapo, the lawyers had to get an OFAC license, which apparently they have now, but that's not the same as an assurance the Government won't try and forfeit their fees, even if OFAC allowed them. The Federal Defenders have asked the Judge to order the Government to provide notice within 60 days if they intent to go after the lawyers' fees.

I think the Government will let them have their fees, if only because it filed a long letter with the judge at the beginning of the case asking the Judge to hold a hearing on whether El Chapo qualified for court appointed counsel given his purported wealth.

In sum, given the limited resources available for indigent defendants and others who lack the financial ability to retain counsel in this district, and in light of the numerous accounts of Guzman’s wealth, the Court should make a strenuous inquiry into whether the defendant is financially unable to afford counsel. Such an inquiry is necessary to ensure that American taxpayers are not needlessly paying for the representation of Guzman, the billionaire leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, the world’s largest and most prolific drug trafficking organization.

How hypocritical (but typical) of the Government if they now come back and try to take private counsel's fees. After the Defenders office filed its letter today advising the Court that private counsel wanted assurances it could keep their fees, the Government filed a sealed Motion to Compel and a sealed letter to the Court. I suspect, but of course don't know, that the Motion to Compel is to get the defense to specify where the fees are coming from and the letter is a request to the Judge to hear the matter on August 14, the date of the next status conference in the case.

Right before El Chapo was extradited, I wrote this post on how he might be able to avoid a life sentence at Supermax. It all depends on the contents of the Extradition Order and any diplomatic notes that go along with it.

Would Mexico have authorized only a temporary surrender? I think the chances are slim, but the extradition documents are not public, so who knows. But I see pros and cons from Mexico's point of view. On the one hand, El Chapo still owes Mexico big time on the sentence he was serving at the time of his 2001 escape. And since then, they have filed many more cases against him.

Also, Mexico is reportedly not fond of our practice of rewarding cooperators with leniency in their own sentences. It's even less fond of the U.S. practice of letting cooperators remain in the U.S. after serving their sentences, due to the likelihood they will be killed upon return to their home countries. (It's pretty bizarre that the U.S. now insists on deporting non-violent, law-abiding immigrants just because they don't have proper documentation to be here, but it offers murderers and major cartel figures a free haven for life after serving their sentences, just because they had some useful (according to the Government) information to give against other alleged lawbreakers).

In addition, Mexico gets annoyed when the U.S. seizes the cartel figure's assets and doesn't share proportionately with Mexico. Legislators there have already called for assurances it will get its share of any El Chapo pie.

On the other hand, does Mexico want El Chapo back, when he's escaped twice and given it a black eye? Clearly Mexican prisons are too corrupt to hold him. (His escapes would not have been possible without knowledge, if not outright assistance, from prison officials.) So far, there's only a reference in some pleadings in El Chapo's case to Mexico having waived the rule of specialty to authorize his prosecution in any U.S. jurisdiction. His motion to dismiss claiming a violation of the rule of specialty is sealed. The issue may be whether it was signed by the proper official. If it wasn't, he could only be tried in the districts for which the U.S. had an explicit extradtion order -- San Diego or West Texas. Time will tell. In the meantime, Congrats to El Chapo's team who made wise choices on selecting his new counsel.

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