Last week's arrest of drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman sent a seismic shift through the twin worlds of cocaine and law enforcement worldwide. Guzman, thought to be one of the world's wealthiest men, has been described as a ruthless overlord of one of the biggest cocaine empires on Earth, allegedly shipping tons of cocaine into Chicago and other North American markets.
So it was big news last week, when one of Guzman's lieutenants abruptly announced a decision to plead guilty to a massive cocaine case which is about to go to the trial phase here in Chicago. Alfredo Vasquez-Hernandez is one of several defendants from the El Chapo organization facing years in prison for allegedly importing massive amounts of cocaine into the United States.
But now it isn't going to happen. Today Hernandez abruptly changed his tune, asking to be put on trial. The reason? A Chicago television report, that he was not only pleading guilty, but also turning on his former boss.
"Needless to say, that was like hitting a hornet's nest with a stick," said defense lawyer Paul Brayman. "He isn't cooperating. He doesn't intend to cooperate."
Calling the report an "unfortunate piece of journalism", Brayman said Hernandez feared for his own safety, and that of his family.
"He heard about the rumors going throughout Mexico that he was cooperating," said Brayman. "And of course, what do you do at that point?"
Brayman suggested that while Guzman is behind bars in a Mexican prison, the fact that his organization is very much alive puts Hernandez in danger, if he is perceived as being a turncoat.
"His wife and children are certainly trying to be unavailable at this point," he said. "And hopefully they will be safe."
Hernandez asked for a bench trial in front of chief judge Ruben Castillo. The judge refused, saying he can face a jury along with his co-defendants when their trial begins in May.
Hernandez had planned to enter what is known as a "blind plea" of guilty. That usually means the defendant has made no deals for expected punishment. But with the reports that he was cooperating, by withdrawing his guilty plea he clearly sought to telegraph a message to the El Chapo organization that he remained loyal, and silent. His lawyer delivered that message, in essence, when he emphasized to reporters after court, that his client had made no deals to help the prosecution.
"Absolutely," Brayman said. "Not cooperating, had no plans to cooperate in the future. He has no plans to testify against anybody or enter into a plea agreement with the government."