January 31, 2019 / 10:23 PM / 6 months ago

Defense calls 'El Chapo' a 'fall guy' in drug trial closing argument

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A lawyer for accused Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman told jurors on Thursday his client was a scapegoat, with even a famous 2015 prison escape part of an elaborate conspiracy to set him up as a “fall guy.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Liskamm points at the accused Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman (R) while delivering rebuttal during the trial of Guzman in this courtroom sketch in Brooklyn federal court in New York City, U.S., January 31, 2019. REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg

In his closing argument at Guzman’s trial in Brooklyn federal court, defense lawyer Jeffrey Lichtman reiterated his claim that Guzman had been framed by drug lord Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.

Lichtman also assailed the prosecution’s star witnesses, former associates of Guzman who testified against him after striking cooperation deals with the U.S. government.

Guzman, 61, was extradited to the United States in January 2017. Prosecutors have said he trafficked tons of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana into the United States as a top leader of the Sinaloa Cartel.

U.S. prosecutors have also indicted Zambada as a cartel leader, but he remains at large.

Lichtman said Zambada bribed the Mexican government to leave him alone and pursue Guzman instead. The lawyer said a $100 million bribe that, according to one witness, Guzman paid to former Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto must actually have come from Zambada.

“Tell me, who do you think paid that bribe?” he asked. “The man hunted like an animal for years after the bribe was supposedly paid, or the man who was free for decades?”

Pena Nieto has denied taking bribes.

Lichtman said Zambada arranged to break Guzman out of prison through a tunnel in 2015 because he “wanted Mr. Guzman’s stature to rise again” and take the heat off himself.

It was a toned-down version of Lichtman’s opening statement almost three months ago, in which he claimed that the U.S. government and Zambada conspired to frame Guzman. U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan ruled at the time the argument was improper because government misconduct is a question for the judge, not the jury, and told the jury to ignore it.

Lichtman spent most of his closing argument attacking the cooperating witnesses, most of whom had admitted to extensive histories of crime and dishonesty.

“These witnesses not only lied every day of their lives - their miserable, selfish lives - they lied while they were cooperating,” he said.

The cooperators’ lies permeated the whole prosecution case, Lichtman said, noting the government relied on them to identify Guzman’s voice on recorded phone calls.

“The voice on those tapes could be anybody,” he said. “It could be Mayo Zambada.”

Prosecutor Amanda Liskamm, in a rebuttal, called Lichtman’s argument a “distraction.”

“The defense is pointing fingers everywhere except where the evidence points,” she said.

Reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Anthony Lin and Matthew Lewis

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