A US judge has refused to rule out the possibility that the defense lawyers looking to represent Mexico's most famous drug lord, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, could see their legal fees seized, a tactic previously wielded by US authorities attempting to secure the cooperation of high-profile defendants.
At an August 14 hearing, US federal judge Brian Cogan told the lawyers that they would have to assume the risk that the state might seize money earned as payment for their services if they go on to represent the Sinaloa Cartel leader, the Associated Press reported.
On August 8, the New York Times reported that El Chapo had ceased working with the public defenders he was provided and had instead hired private lawyers including Jeffrey Lichtman, most famous for successfully defending John "Junior" Gotti, the son of a New York crime boss.
However, Lichtman had not yet submitted his official notice of appearance due to the concerns regarding payment. His prospective defense team includes the lawyer who represented Guzmán rival Alfredo Beltrán Leyva.
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The lawyers that El Chapo wants to bring into his defense team are reportedly seeking assurances that the US government will not at any point seize their earnings under allegations that they could be linked to drug money. The US government is hoping to seize up to $14 billion in criminal assets as part of the case against El Chapo.
InSight Crime Analysis
The US judge's decision reflects a tactic used in the past by US authorities to put pressure on lawyers defending high-profile criminals: If they do not convince their client to cooperate, their payment funds may be targeted.
One example is that of former Medellín Cartel member Fabio Ochoa Vásquez, who was convicted by US authorities in 2003 on drug trafficking charges after pleading innocent and going to trial. Ochoa was defended by US attorney Roy Black, who in 2001 hired lawyer Benedict Kuehne to vet some $5.2 million in legal fees paid by Ochoa. Kuehne confirmed the money was from "legitimate sources," but prosecutors later accused Kuehne of money laundering for approving the $5.2 million in legal fees, an investigation that was later dropped.
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It remains to be seen if El Chapo will collaborate with US authorities by providing information on the Sinaloa Cartel and its rivals. So far, he has pleaded not guilty. But it is very common for organized crime defendants facing similar charges to strike plea bargains with prosecutors in order to lighten their potential sentences. The court's refusal to guarantee the security of the lawyers' fees in the El Chapo case could be intended to encourage his legal team to encourage him to make a deal.