Defense attorneys who represent the region’s most powerful drug lords are offered tantilizing compensation packages from their capo clients but the risks inherent in the job are evident from the host of lawyers gunned down in Colombia, Mexico and elsewhere.
A former Colombian state prosecutor turned drug lord lawyer, Braulio Pardo Velasquez was shot and killed in the southwestern city of Cali last January. Pardo fit the profile of a vulnerable target: he had been a member of the defense team of Martin Fernando Varon, alias “Martin Bala,” a leader of the Colombian criminal group the Rastrojos. Pardo also represented convicted arms trafficker Mauricio Ovalle, assassinated in 2011. Police reportedly believe Pardo was killed by a rival of one of his former clients, meaning there are plenty of suspects to choose from.
According to the Colombian office of Lawyers Without Borders, 24 lawyers were killed in Colombia in 2011, the majority of them litigators. Though not all worked on trafficking related cases or had capos for clients, many of them were based in provinces most afflicted by the drug trade, reports Semana magazine. Another four litigators have been reported killed so far in 2012, by the magazine’s count.
Throughout Latin America, lawyers are targeted by organized crime. In Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez, an estimated 245 law firms have closed their doors since 2009 due to violence and threats from organized crime, cutting by 70 percent the number of law offices in the city. During the same time period, 50 lawyers have been killed in the state of Chihuahua; as of March 2011 none of their cases had been resolved.
In Honduras alone, 25 attorneys, many of them criminal lawyers, have been killed in the past five months, according to the National Human Rights Comissioner. Most of these lawyers were shot inside their cars by groups of gunmen on motorcycles or in other vehicles, just as Pardo was killed in Colombia. In at least 18 of the cases, the lawyers could have been killed by hired assassins, the official said.
While some private criminal defense lawyers are lured by the sky-high fees charged for handling drug cases, others have little choice. In some cases, it may be riskier for lawyers to decline to take on a case rather than agreeing to do so but in Mexico, for example, large law firms often assign amateur defense attorneys to handle them.
Cartel lawyers oil the gears that keep the organizations running, performing duties from handling finances, securing official papers, to handling property transactions. As a brief by the White House on transnational organized crime points out, lawyers are often “critical faciltators” for criminal groups. They are “semi-legitimate players… who cross both the licit and illicit worlds and provide services to legitimate customers, criminals, and terrorists alike.”
For jailed crime bosses, an experienced, savvy defense attorney can mean the difference for a capo between spending a lifetime in prison or striking a more palatable deal with prosecutors. Former prosecuting attorneys like Pardo who cross over to the private sector are especially attractive, as they bring their valuable knowledge of the inner workings of government offices, as well as important contacts, to their kingpin clients.
But defense lawyers can also get caught up in the conflict between warring criminal gangs, who may see their rivals’ attorneys as legitimate targets. This appears to have been the case for Hernán Darío Escobar, a noted litigator who once represented the informant best known for giving up the top leaders of the Norte del Valle Cartel, Victor Patiño Fomeque, currently involved in a bitter war against the Rastrojos. Escobar was shot in Cali on May 13 2011 and died 20 days later.
In a separate crime, another criminal lawyer who once defended a prominent member of the Cali Cartel was shot alongside his brother on a countryside road in April 2011.
The defense attorneys most experienced in representing accused drug lords are often prepared to exploit whatever legal measures are available to them, in order to secure the best possible outcome for their clients. But for a disgruntled client, their best may not be good enough or a defense attorney may get caught in the middle of a battle with a rival cartel. Given these inherent risks, an ending like Pardo’s is far from unusual.