Eduardo Balarezo, a Washington defense lawyer specializing in drug cases, has entered an appearance in Brooklyn federal court on behalf of alleged Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, ending a stalemate with the government over possible fee forfeiture.
The entry of Balarezo and other private lawyers into the case to replace public defenders who have represented Guzmán since January was stalled because prosecutors wouldn’t guarantee they won’t seize fees as drug proceeds, and U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan refused to intercede.
Balarezo said he will be joined by William Purpura, a Baltimore lawyer, and two prominent New York defense lawyers — Jeffrey Lichtman and Marc Fernich — said they will also be entering appearances soon.
Although he has no written guarantee that the government won’t challenge fees, Balarezo said he has received a retainer from Guzmán and is prepared to face any challenge.
“Although it would have been preferable to get assurances from the government with respect to forfeiture, given the current situation, I am confident I can move forward,” Balarezo said. “If any situation would arise in the future with respect to possible forfeiture of fees, I am confident there will be no legitimate basis for doing so.”
Lichtman, whose résumé includes a successful defense of one-time Gambino family boss John Gotti’s son John, and Fernich said they would be taking the same step “any day.”
Despite the lack of assurances from the government, Lichtman says he has greater “clarity” about prosecutors’ view of the law on forfeiting legal fees and is comfortable that the line won’t be crossed.
“Unless they can directly trace the funds back or show that we knew that we were getting drug proceeds, they aren’t going to go after the funds,” he said “ . . . I’m willing to take some risk.”
Guzmán, 60, is accused of using murders, kidnappings and unprecedented violence to build and maintain a massive cocaine trafficking empire. He twice escaped prisons in Mexico, and has complained about strict jail conditions in New York since he was extradited in January.
Legal fees are expected to be huge for the sprawling case. Balarezo and Lichtman previously said it would be dangerous to make a commitment without being sure they’d be able to be paid, and criticized the government for complaining about having taxpayers foot the bill for Guzmán’s defense, but at the same time refusing to clear payments to retained lawyers.
Public defenders Michael Schneider and Michele Gelernt, who Cogan said would stay on the case for a 30-day transition after private lawyers enter their appearances, have a challenge to Guzmán’s extradition underway, arguing he was brought to Brooklyn without properly complying with the U.S.-Mexico treaty.
Balarezo said he expects any trial, which Cogan hopes to start next year, to focus on the credibility of cooperating witnesses who will testify against Guzmán in hopes of winning leniency in their own cases.
“It’s a snitch case,” he said.
A spokesman for the Brooklyn U.S. attorney’s office declined to discuss the government’s position on fees.