By Brendan Pierson and Jonathan Stempel
NEWYORK (Reuters) – A defence lawyer for Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman on Wednesday named some of the former close associates of the Mexican drug lord — including his alleged head of operations in Central America — who will likely testify against him at a U.S. trial.
Defence lawyer Jeffrey Lichtman said as part of his opening statement that he expected prosecutors to call Cesar Gastelum, Damaso Lopez and Miguel Angel Martinez, former drug traffickers who are now cooperating with authorities.
Gastelum moved tons of cocaine a week through Central America to Mexico for Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel, the U.S. Treasury Department said in 2014. Gastelum was later arrested in Mexico and extradited to the United States.
Lopez was at one time seen as Guzman’s right-hand man before the two fell out over control of the cartel, according to media reports.
Prosecutors hope to prove that Guzman, 61, directed the flow of vast quantities of cocaine, marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine into the United States as the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel. He faces life in prison if convicted of the 17 criminal counts against him at a federal court in Brooklyn.
Identities of witnesses in the case had been kept under wraps, but they were disclosed to Guzman’s lawyers shortly before the trial began on Tuesday, a prosecutor said in court.
The trial is expected to last up to four months. Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Fels told jurors in his opening statement Tuesday that it would trace the story of Guzman’s rise from a low-level marijuana trafficker to one of the most powerful drug lords in Mexico, leaving a trail of horrific violence in his wake.
Prosecutors on Wednesday asked U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan to strike from the record part of the defence’s opening statement in which it said Guzman was merely a scapegoat for Mexican drug lord Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada who was allowed to remain free by corrupt government officials.
Lichtman said the U.S. government and Zambada “work together when it suits them.”
Before summoning the jury into the courtroom, Cogan said he would not strike Lichtman’s statement but would instruct jurors to consider only the evidence of Guzman’s guilt, not prosecutors’ motives or whether they acted improperly.
The judge also warned Lichtman the evidence in the case was unlikely to support many of his claims.
“Your opening statement handed out a lot of promissory notes that your case is not going to be able to cash,” Cogan said.
Guzman was one of world’s most wanted fugitives until he was captured in January 2016 in his native Sinaloa in northwest Mexico. He was extradited to the United States a year later.
As well as smuggling drugs to the United States, the Sinaloa Cartel has played a major role in narco violence between rival gangs that has torn areas of Mexico apart and defied successive governments.
More than 200,000 people have been killed — many in cartel feuds — since the Mexican government sent troops in to take on the drug gangs in 2006.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Susan Thomas and Alistair Bell)