Defense lawyers for former Sinaloa Cartel kingpin “El Chapo” have alleged that two of Mexico’s presidents accepted millions of dollars in bribes — unverified accusations that are hotly denied, but which put Mexico’s government in an uncomfortable position and are likely to become a recurring theme during the trial.
Jeffrey Lichtman, a lawyer for Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” alleged in his opening statement that former Mexican President Felipe Calderón and current President Enrique Peña Nieto took “hundreds of millions in bribes” from Sinaloa Cartel leader Ismael Zambada García, alias “El Mayo,” Vice News reported.
Lichtman is claiming that El Chapo is a scapegoat, and that El Mayo is the true leader of the powerful drug trafficking organization, adding that El Mayo "bribes the entire government of Mexico, up to the top." El Mayo is currently at large and considered one of US authorities’ most wanted criminals.
SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel News and Profile
The defense attorney went so far as to allege a plot to frame his client, which included not only El Mayo and corrupt officials in Mexico, but also US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents, The New York Times reported.
After the jury had been dismissed for the day, Judge Brian Cogan warned Lichtman not to make claims that “might not be supported by evidence," according to The New York Times. US prosecutors have since asked the judge to strike Lichtman’s opening statement.
Former President Calderón said in a tweet that Lichtman’s claims were “absolutely false and reckless,” adding that “neither he, nor the Sinaloa cartel nor anyone else made payments to me." President Enrique Peña Nieto also denied the allegations through a spokesman, who called them "completely false and defamatory."
InSight Crime Analysis
Drug kingpins like El Chapo rarely ever face trial in Mexico, and the allegations made during his first day in US court offer a glimpse of how the Mexican government will be exposed to continued public scrutiny as the trial goes on.
Large drug trafficking cases are long and sprawling, which means they can have unexpected implications for political and business elites.
For example, the US drug trafficking case against Fabio Lobo, the son of former Honduras President Porfirio Lobo, revealed links between drug traffickers and the Honduran government. In that case, Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga — a former leader of the Cachiros criminal group — testified in a sentencing hearing that he repeatedly bribed the former president and delivered hundreds of thousands of dollars directly to him.
He also testified that Honduran Congressman Antonio “Tony” Hernández, the brother of current President Juan Orlando Hernández, colluded with the Cachiros in their criminal enterprise. All of these damning allegations came from a single witness during a little noticed sentencing hearing.
El Chapo's trial has received far more attention, turning the sensational accusations against the former Mexican presidents into headline news.
SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles
Lichtman’s antics are likely an attempt by El Chapo’s defense team to “muddy the waters,” trying to make the Mexican government seem “more culpable than he [El Chapo] is,” according to Mike Vigil, the former Chief of International Operations at the DEA.
El Chapo's trial is expected to last four months, and his lawyer has made it clear on its first day that he will present a wide-ranging conspiracy aimed at implicating Mexico's ruling class.
The Honduran drug trial showed, however, that even one witness can open a Pandora's Box. What remains to be seen is whether El Chapo's lawyer has the evidence and witnesses to back up his bluster.