“The person I knew has nothing in common with the monster that the press describes.”
Those are the words of José Refugio Rodríguez, a Mexican lawyer who defended notorious drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán for three years until his client was extradited to the United States in January 2017.
Guzmán, the 61-year-old former leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, is currently on trial in New York, where some of his former criminal associates have given detailed testimony about the ex-capo’s life and the inner workings of the powerful criminal organization he once headed.
Jesús Zambada, a former cartel operations chief and younger brother of current Sinaloa Cartel leader Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, told jurors that Guzmán was “one of the most powerful drug traffickers in Mexico” and testified about his former boss’ plan to kill an anti-drug czar among other tales of violence.
Later in the trial, the jury heard from Miguel Ángel Martínez, a former Sinaloa Cartel pilot and one-time close associate of Guzmán, who said that Chapo was so rich that “he had houses at every single beach” and “ranches in every single state.”
A private zoo at a property in Acapulco “with a little train” that was used to ride around and see lions, tigers and panthers, a trip to Switzerland for an anti-aging treatment, private jets, opulent gifts and “four to five women” were among Guzmán’s excesses, the court heard.
But Refugio Rodríguez, who retains close ties to Guzmán as lawyer for his father-in-law and brother-in-law, told the Chilean newspaper La Tercera that his former client didn’t live the life of luxury that Martínez described.
“I go to Sinaloa a lot and I hear the people speak very well of Joaquín Guzmán. They say that he led a very austere life. I never heard about that ranch with the train,” he said.
“Those [claims of] luxuries and those millions that place him among the richest people in the world, I’ve only seen them in the press. I’ve even been to his mother’s house and it’s an austere house. The people in Sinaloa love him a lot,” Refugio added.
Asked whether he had any knowledge about Guzmán undergoing a facial rejuvenation treatment in Switzerland, the lawyer responded by portraying his former client as an unassuming and kindly person.
“The last thing that they could be said about Joaquín Guzmán is that he is a vain person. I met a very simple and modest person who was ready to lend a hand to anyone who needed help . . .He didn’t wear brand clothes, he didn’t wear jewelry and friends that I met through him . . . have told me that they slept on the floor with him [in his home] in the mountains, they never spoke of having been in a luxurious residence owned by Joaquín Guzmán,” Refugio said.
“He is not the monster they say he is, there are testimonies from people who have received help from him without knowing him,” he declared.
Refugio said that a lot of the witnesses testifying against Guzmán in court are doing so for their own benefit, adding that “it’s very easy to blame an emblematic figure like Joaquín.”
The legal defense for Guzmán, who faces possible life imprisonment if convicted of charges including drug trafficking, conspiracy and money laundering, has attempted to depict former cartel members and criminal associates turned prosecution witnesses as unreliable and self-serving.
Lawyer Jeffrey Lichtman dubbed them “liars,” “degenerates” and “scum” early in the trial, charging that “they’re here because they want to get out of jail by any means necessary.”
Getting out of jail is something that Guzmán knows a thing or two about, having twice successfully escaped from prisons in Mexico, feats that Refugio admitted had caused his notoriety to increase.
“I am convinced that Joaquín Guzmán is a very intelligent person. As a result of that intelligence, he made two spectacular escapes [from prison] that not even the best novelist could have dreamed up,” he said.
“Escaping from the most secure prisons in the country caused his reputation to begin to grow and good and bad myths about him were created. A cinematic escape of such a level is difficult to achieve without large resources and networks. That reflects power and money and a lot of intelligence. But he’s not manipulative . . . He never asked me to bribe any authority,” Refugio said.
The lawyer told La Tercera that Lichtman is “one of the best criminal lawyers in the United States” and that Guzmán’s entire legal team is “very optimistic of obtaining a good result.”
The strategy to portray El Chapo as nothing more than a scapegoat – an underling of real cartel boss “El Mayo” Zambada – “could work,” Refugio said.
“I see the possibility that Joaquín Guzmán will do well and according to private information, the trial is progressing in a way that is favorable to him,” he added.
Jurors have now heard four weeks of often-grisly testimony in a trial that could last up to four months. It continues this week but will break for a two-week recess over the Christmas-New Year period.
Source: La Tercera (sp)