'El Chapo's' lawyers face tough choices at trial's end

With federal prosecutors expected to rest their case against Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman on Monday, lawyers for the accused Mexican drug kingpin have given few clues about how they plan to counter three months of testimony by more than 50 government witnesses.

Among the tough choices they face are whether to call their own witnesses to try to undermine the prosecutors' evidence, and whether Guzman should take the stand in his own defense. One of his attorneys said on Friday that they would not reveal the names of any witnesses unless they decided to call them.

"Similarly, we will not disclose Joaquin's plans about testifying until the time comes to inform the court," Guzman lawyer Eduardo Balarezo said in a statement.

Guzman, 61, the alleged leader of Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel, was extradited to the United States in 2017. He has been on trial since November on charges of trafficking vast quantities of cocaine, heroin and other illegal drugs into the country. Prosecutors have called more than a dozen former cartel members to testify against him.

The main defense argument, as put forth by Guzman lawyer Jeffrey Lichtman in his opening statement, has been that the real leader of the Sinaloa Cartel is Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, and that Zambada bribed the Mexican and U.S. governments to frame Guzman.

Guzman's lawyers have discussed multiple potential witnesses with prosecutors in open court, and have filed a motion suggesting they might call an inmate in the U.S. prison system, but they have not publicly revealed any names.

Defendants in criminal cases are under no obligation to call any witnesses. Many defendants in organized crime cases do not, said defense lawyer Steven Boozang, who defended Boston mafia boss Francis "Cadillac Frank" Salemme in a murder trial last year. He said the decision depends on what exonerating evidence is available.

"It has to be reliable," he said. "It has to be truthful."

Elie Honig, a former federal prosecutor, said it could make sense for a defendant to call witnesses if they could offer the jury an alternative explanation of the evidence that proved a defendant's innocence. But he said such witnesses can backfire if their testimony is not convincing.

Lichtman said evidence for the defense's contention that Zambada framed Guzman would emerge from the prosecution's own witnesses, but such testimony largely failed to materialize. Multiple witnesses described Guzman as either the boss of the cartel or an equal partner with Zambada. The most explosive allegations about bribery came when one witness said Guzman paid $100 million to former Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto. Pena Nieto has denied taking any bribes.

In many cases, Honig said, the only viable defense strategy is to seek to undermine prosecution witnesses who have pleaded guilty to crimes and agreed to cooperate.

"Tell the jury, 'You just heard a bunch of tales from a bunch of lying criminal scoundrels who simply want to please the government, and my guy is their meal ticket,'" he said.

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Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman
Mexico's top drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted as he arrives at Long Island MacArthur airport in New York, U.S., January 19, 2017, after his extradition from Mexico. Picture taken Janaury 19, 2017. U.S. officials/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Wife of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, Emma Coronel, exits following his court appearance at the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, U.S., February 3, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
Mexico's top drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted by soldiers in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, as he is extradited to New York in this handout image made available January 19, 2017. Faces of soldiers obscured and image watermarked at source. PGR - Mexico's Attorney General's Office/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY.
Mexico's top drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted by soldiers in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, as he is extradited to New York in this handout image made available January 19, 2017. Faces of soldiers obscured and image watermarked at source. PGR - Mexico's Attorney General's Office/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A motorcade carrying Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman crosses the Brooklyn Bridge following his court appearance in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, U.S., February 3, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
Federal Police patrols park outside of Federal Prison Cefereso number 9 where Joaquin Guzman Loera aka 'El Chapo Guzman' was jailed before being extradited to the United States in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on January 19, 2017. Mexico extradited drug kingpin Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman to the United States -- handing over one of the world's most notorious criminals on the eve of US President-elect Donald Trump's inauguration. / AFP / HERIKA MARTINEZ (Photo credit should read HERIKA MARTINEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - JANUARY 8: Joaquin Guzman Loera, also known as 'El Chapo' is transported to Maximum Security Prison of El Altiplano in Mexico City, Mexico on January 08, 2016. Guzman Loera, leader of Mexico's Sinaloa drug Cartel, was considered the Mexican most-wanted drug lord. Mexican marines captured 'El Chapo' on Friday in Sinaloa, North of Mexico. (Photo by Daniel Cardenas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALMOLOYA DE JUAREZ, July 16, 2015-- Security forces stand guard in the surroundings of the alleged house where was built the tunnel, through which escaped from prison Mexico's drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman, in Almoloya de Juarez, on the outskirts of Mexico City, Mexico, on July 15, 2015. Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel, disappeared from the maximum-security Altiplano prison outside of Mexico City Saturday night, according to the National Security Commission. (Xinhua/Alejandro Ayala via Getty Images)
A Mexican soldier speaks with a man at the International airport in Mexico City on July 16, 2015. The Mexican government has offered a $3.8 million reward for fugitive drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman's capture, double the amount it usually offers for the country's most wanted criminals. AFP PHOTO/ YURI CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
A Public Safety Secretary of the Federal District (SSPDF) police officer stands next to a patrol car with a picture of fugitive drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman's on its window, in Acapulco, Guerrero State, Mexico, on July 14, 2015. Mexico's government offered a $3.8 million reward for the capture of 'El Chapo' Guzman on Monday and sacked top prison officials amid suspicions that guards helped him escape. Guzman vanished from his cell late Saturday even though he was wearing a monitoring bracelet and surveillance cameras were trained on the room 24 hours a day, Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said. AFP PHOTO / PEDRO PARDO (Photo credit should read Pedro PARDO/AFP/Getty Images)
Mexico's Attorney General Arely Gomez shows a picture of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman during a press conference held at the Secretaria de Gobernacion in Mexico City, on July 13, 2015. Guzman managed to escape from his cell despite a monitoring bracelet and 24-hour security camera surveillance, and likely was helped by prison officials, authorities said. AFP PHOTO/ Yuri CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
A poster with the face of Mexican drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman, reading 'Wanted, Again', is displayed at a newsstand in one Mexico City's major bus terminals on July 13, 2015, a day after the government informed of the escape of the drug kingpin from a maximum-security prison. Mexican security forces scrambled Monday to save face and recapture 'El Chapo' as authorities investigated whether guards helped him escape prison through a tunnel under his cell. AFP PHOTO / YURI CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - JULY 12: View of pipes near the Mexican Maximum Security Prison of 'El Altiplano' after the confirmation of the escape of Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman on July 12, 2015 in Mexico City, Mexico. 'El Chapo' was seen last time around 20:52 on the video security system when he got close to the showers where he normally takes his shower and washes his essentials. (Photo by Manuel Velasquez/LatinContent/Getty Images)
A Federal Police officer stands guard outside the house at the end of the tunnel through which Mexican drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman could have escaped from the Altiplano prison, in Almoloya de Juarez, Mexico, on July 12, 2015. Guzman has escaped from a maximum-security prison, the government said Sunday, his second jail break in 14 years. The kingpin was last seen in the shower area of the Altiplano prison in central Mexico late Saturday before disappearing. 'The escape of Guzman was confirmed', the National Security Commission said in a statement. AFP PHOTO / YURI CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
A group of journalists remain close the house at the end of the tunnel through which Mexican drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman could have escaped from the Altiplano prison, in Almoloya de Juarez, Mexico, on July 12, 2015. Guzman has escaped from a maximum-security prison, the government said Sunday, his second jail break in 14 years. The kingpin was last seen in the shower area of the Altiplano prison in central Mexico late Saturday before disappearing. 'The escape of Guzman was confirmed', the National Security Commission said in a statement. AFP PHOTO / YURI CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
A Federal Police officer stands guard outside the house at the end of the tunnel through which Mexican drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman could have escaped from the Altiplano prison, in Almoloya de Juarez, Mexico, on July 12, 2015. Guzman has escaped from a maximum-security prison, the government said Sunday, his second jail break in 14 years. The kingpin was last seen in the shower area of the Altiplano prison in central Mexico late Saturday before disappearing. 'The escape of Guzman was confirmed', the National Security Commission said in a statement. AFP PHOTO / YURI CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Picture of the yellow tape put by security forces of the Office of the Attorney General around the house at the end of the tunnel through which Mexican drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman could have escaped from the Altiplano prison, in Almoloya de Juarez, Mexico, on July 12, 2015. Guzman has escaped from a maximum-security prison, the government said Sunday, his second jail break in 14 years. The kingpin was last seen in the shower area of the Altiplano prison in central Mexico late Saturday before disappearing. 'The escape of Guzman was confirmed', the National Security Commission said in a statement. AFP PHOTO / YURI CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - JULY 12: Federal Police men patrol near of the Maximum Security Prison of 'El Altiplano' during an operation on the surroundings of Mexican Maximum Security Prison of 'El Altiplano' after the confirmation of the eescape of Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman on July 12, 2015 in Mexico City, Mexico. 'El Chapo' was seen last time around 20:52 on the video security system when he got close to the showers where he normally takes his shower and washeses his essentials. (Photo by Manuel Velasquez/LatinContent/Getty Images)
MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - JULY 12: View of a tunnel terminated in a house under construction in a neighborhood near the prison which was allegedly used Joaquin El Chapo Guzman to eescape, during an operation on the surroundings of Mexican Maximum Security Prison of 'El Altiplano' after confirming the escape of Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman on July 12, 2015 in Mexico City, Mexico. 'El Chapo' was seen last time around 20:52 on the video security system when he got close to the showers where he normally takes his shower and washeses his essentials. (Photo by Manuel Velasquez/LatinContent/Getty Images)
Picture of the yellow tape put by security forces of the Office of the Attorney General around the house at the end of the tunnel through which Mexican drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman could have escaped from the Altiplano prison, in Almoloya de Juarez, Mexico, on July 12, 2015. Guzman has escaped from a maximum-security prison, the government said Sunday, his second jail break in 14 years. The kingpin was last seen in the shower area of the Altiplano prison in central Mexico late Saturday before disappearing. 'The escape of Guzman was confirmed', the National Security Commission said in a statement. AFP PHOTO / YURI CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - JULY 12: View of a tunnel terminated in a house under construction in a neighborhood near the prison which was allegedly used Joaquin El Chapo Guzman to eescape, during an operation on the surroundings of Mexican Maximum Security Prison of 'El Altiplano' after confirming the escape of Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman on July 12, 2015 in Mexico City, Mexico. 'El Chapo' was seen last time around 20:52 on the video security system when he got close to the showers where he normally takes his shower and washeses his essentials. (Photo by Manuel Velasquez/LatinContent/Getty Images)
Picture of the yellow tape put by security forces of the Office of the Attorney General around the house at the end of the tunnel through which Mexican drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman could have escaped from the Altiplano prison, in Almoloya de Juarez, Mexico, on July 12, 2015. Guzman has escaped from a maximum-security prison, the government said Sunday, his second jail break in 14 years. The kingpin was last seen in the shower area of the Altiplano prison in central Mexico late Saturday before disappearing. 'The escape of Guzman was confirmed', the National Security Commission said in a statement. AFP PHOTO / YURI CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - JULY 12: Arelly Gomez General Attorney of Mexico walks during an operation on the surroundings of Mexican Maximum Security Prison of 'El Altiplano' after te confirmation of the eeescape of Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman on July 12, 2015 in Mexico City, Mexico. 'El Chapo' was seen last time around 20:52 on the video security system when he got close to the showers where he normally takes his shower and washeses his essentials. (Photo by Manuel Velasquez/LatinContent/Getty Images)
Security forces of the Office of the Attorney General secure the house at the end of the tunnel through which Mexican drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman could have escaped from the Altiplano prison, in Almoloya de Juarez, Mexico, on July 12, 2015. Guzman has escaped from a maximum-security prison, the government said Sunday, his second jail break in 14 years. The kingpin was last seen in the shower area of the Altiplano prison in central Mexico late Saturday before disappearing. 'The escape of Guzman was confirmed', the National Security Commission said in a statement. AFP PHOTO / YURI CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Guatemalan Interior Deputy Minister Elmer Sosa shows a picture of Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman Loera during a press conference in Guatemala City on July 12, 2015. The security authorities of Guatemala are in alert after the escape of the leader of the powerful Sinaloa cartel, reported Sunday an official source. AFP PHOTO / Johan ORDONEZ (Photo credit should read JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
View of the covers of Mexican newspapers in Mexico City, on February 23, 2014, after Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin Guzman Loera aka 'el Chapo Guzman' was arrested yesterday by Mexican marines. Guzman is the Sinaloa cartel leader and the most wanted by US and Mexican anti-drug agencies. AFP PHOTO/Alfredo Estrella (Photo credit should read ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images)
A semi-submersible which was seized with seven and a half tons of cocaine, is exhibited at a military unit in Tegucigalpa on February 24, 2014. Hoduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez congratulated the Mexican government for the capture of Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman, who had extended his power to Central America, linked for over two decades to groups that control vast territories for the passage of drugs to the US. AFP PHOTO/Orlando SIERRA (Photo credit should read ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images)
Drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman escaped his captors by walking along this drainage canal and tunnel behind a house in Culiacan, Mexico, last week. Guzman was finally captured on Saturday in the nearby city of Maz. Photo was taken Feb. 24, 2014. (Tim Johnson/MCT via Getty Images)
Members of the press take photographs as drug trafficker Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman is flown by a Federal Police helicopter, blue helicopter in center, from a Navy hangar at Mexico's International Airport in Mexico city, Mexico, on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014. Mexico's apprehension of the world's most-wanted drug boss struck a blow to a cartel that local and U.S. authorities say swelled into a multinational empire, fueling killings around the world. Photographer: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg via Getty Images
View of the inside of a semi-submersible -seized with seven and a half tons of cocaine- exhibited at a military unit in Tegucigalpa on February 24, 2014. Hoduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez congratulated the Mexican government for the capture of Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman, who had extended his power to Central America, linked for over two decades to groups that control vast territories for the passage of drugs to the US. AFP PHOTO/Orlando SIERRA (Photo credit should read ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images)
Drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman escaped his captors by walking along this drainage canal and tunnel behind a house in Culiacan, Mexico, last week. Guzman was finally captured on Saturday in the nearby city of Maz. Photo was taken Feb. 24, 2014. (Tim Johnson/MCT via Getty Images)
View of the covers of Mexican newspapers in Mexico City, on February 23, 2014, after Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin Guzman Loera aka 'el Chapo Guzman' was arrested yesterday by Mexican marines. Guzman is the Sinaloa cartel leader and the most wanted by US and Mexican anti-drug agencies. AFP PHOTO/Alfredo Estrella (Photo credit should read ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images)
Jesus Murillo Karam, attorney general of Mexico, center, stands next to Vidal Francisco Soberon Sanz, an admiral of the Mexican Navy, right, and Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, Mexican secretariat of national defense, left, while speaking about the capture of drug trafficker Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman to members of the press outside a Navy hangar at Mexico's International Airport in Mexico city, Mexico, on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014. Mexico's apprehension of the world's most-wanted drug boss struck a blow to a cartel that local and U.S. authorities say swelled into a multinational empire, fueling killings around the world. Photographer: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Members of the Mexican Navy stand guard during an operation to present Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin Guzman Loera aka 'el Chapo Guzman' to the press, on February 22, 2014 in Mexico City. The Sinaloa cartel leader - the most wanted by US and Mexican anti-drug agencies - was arrested early this morning by Mexican marines at a resort in Mazatlan, northern Mexico. AFP PHOTO/Alfredo Estrella (Photo credit should read ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images)
Members of the Mexican Navy stand guard near a helicopter transporting Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin Guzman Loera aka 'el Chapo Guzman', on February 22, 2014 in Mexico City. The Sinaloa cartel leader - the most wanted by US and Mexican anti-drug agencies - was arrested early this morning by Mexican marines at a resort in Mazatlan, northern Mexico. AFP PHOTO/Alfredo Estrella (Photo credit should read ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images)
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Guzman's lawyers have sharply interrogated cooperating witnesses about their past crimes. Under cross-examination, former Guzman associate Jorge Cifuentes admitted traveling the world on forged identification documents; his former communications technician Christian Rodriguez admitted not paying taxes on money the U.S. government paid him to cooperate; and Colombian kingpin Juan Carlos "Chupeta" Ramirez acknowledged taking part in dozens of murders.

In Guzman's case, the strategy may have limits. Much of the evidence against him is intercepted electronic messages in which Guzman himself appears to discuss drug deals, and his lawyers have not so far challenged their authenticity.

Boozang said Guzman's lawyers were sure to discourage their client from testifying himself, which would let prosecutors cross-examine him.

"Putting on the defendant, it's almost never done," Boozang said, adding that the prosecution "would most likely have a field day" with Guzman.

But the alleged cartel boss may ignore his attorneys. Numerous witnesses have described him as boastful and impulsive.

In recent years, Guzman has courted publicity, seeking to make a movie about his life and giving an interview to actor Sean Penn for Rolling Stone magazine in 2015. In a Brooklyn courtroom, he could find his biggest stage yet.

(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Anthony Lin and Daniel Wallis)

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