Reputed El Chapo lieutenant doesn’t want kingpin’s name uttered during his trial
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Jesus Raul Beltran Leon is related to Mexico’s most notorious drug lord, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, through marriage, according to federal prosecutors in Chicago. And he was a top lieutenant in Guzman’s multibillion-dollar drug enterprise, the Sinaloa Cartel, they say.
But when Beltran Leon goes on trial in Chicago on charges that he was a top player in Guzman’s organization, Beltran Leon wants a federal judge to bar prosecutors from mentioning two key names to jurors: Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera. And the Sinaloa Cartel.
The charges against Beltran Leon date to a far-reaching indictment the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago obtained against Guzman and his reputed associates in 2009.
Key evidence from the Chicago case was presented earlier this year during Guzman’s three-month trial in Brooklyn, where he was convicted in February of running an industrial-scale drug-smuggling operation. Guzman awaits sentencing.
Beltran Leon, 35, faces trial beginning May 20 on charges that accuse him of overseeing tens of millions of dollars of drug money for the Sinaloa Cartel.
He is one of two reputed top cartel figures whose fates are still to be decided by federal judges in Chicago. The other is Vicente “El Vicentillo” Zambada Niebla, the son of current cartel leader Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada. The younger Zambada, who testified against Guzman, faces sentencing April 25.
Beltran Leon’s lawyers argue that the name Sinaloa Cartel is “irrelevant” to the case against him and would prejudice jurors.
Instead of calling it by name, his criminal defense lawyers suggested that prosecutors could just call the cartel a “drug-trafficking organization.”
“The government does not need to prove that Mr. Beltran Leon knew that it was a worldwide, transnational organization known as the Sinaloa Cartel with which he allegedly conspired,” they wrote.
They also want Chief U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo to keep prosecutors from even speaking Guzman’s name at Beltran Leon’s trial because they say that, too, would prejudice jurors against him.
“The name Joaquin Guzman Loera or El Chapo has become so intensely familiar to the public that the sheer mention [of] his name would influence any preconceived objectivity necessary for the jury to justly and fairly consider the evidence before it,” Beltran Leon’s lawyers wrote.
To bolster their argument, they submitted news stories with headlines about Guzman and his cartel, including this one: “El Chapo, world’s most violent drug trafficker.”
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• ‘El Vicentillo,’ El Chapo’s ex-logistics guru, was a cartel big shot since teens
• With El Chapo in jail, DEA and Mexico focus on other cartels with Chicago ties
Prosecutors argue that they need to refer to Guzman by name, describing him as Beltran Leon’s “co-conspirator, protector and ultimate boss.” They say Beltran Leon and Guzman’s son Alfredo are brothers-in-law and that Beltran Leon worked directly under Guzman and his sons.
“At trial, the defendant will not be prejudiced by the use of the name of the Sinaloa Cartel and its leader in part because the government will not seek to rely upon anything the jurors have previously heard or learned about the Sinaloa Cartel or its leader outside of the courtroom,” prosecutors wrote.
“Instead, the government will put forth evidence at trial, including through cooperator and expert testimony, to explain the characteristics, scope, leadership structure, size and means and methods of the cartel and, most critically, defendant’s role in the Cartel.”
It’s not unprecedented for a judge to bar prosecutors from saying certain names or words at trial. For instance, Cook County Circuit Judge Vincent Gaughan wouldn’t let prosecutors refer to Laquan McDonald as a “victim” during the murder trial of Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke. Dyke shot the 17-year-old 16 times on Oct. 20, 2014, and was sentenced in January to 81 months in prison for second-degree murder.
Prosecutors in Beltran Leon’s case say he was close to Guzman and his family and that the relationship is relevant. To make that point, prosecutors say that the first time Guzman escaped from prison in Mexico, Beltran Leon was in the greeting party that awaited him.
Guzman called his son Ivan to pick him up after he escaped from a Mexican prison in 2001, according to a former cartel member turned government informant. Beltran Leon told the informant he was with the son when they met Guzman, making him “one of the first people to see” the kingpin after the first of his two prison escapes, according to prosecutors.
Beltran Leon was captured in Mexico in 2014 and extradited to Chicago in 2017.
He has accused U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents of watching as Mexican soldiers tortured him.
Castillo has called Beltran Leon’s account of torture disturbing but refused to dismiss the charges against him.
Contributing: Jon Seidel