CHICAGO — A reputed lieutenant of recently captured drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman abruptly reversed his plans to plead guilty Friday to federal trafficking charges, a move made out of fear for the lives of his wife and children in Mexico, according to his attorney.
Alfredo Vasquez Hernandez, who has been in U.S. custody since 2012, had been scheduled to change his plea to guilty in federal court in Chicago. But his attorney, Paul Brayman, told a judge that Hernandez decided to go to trial as originally planned after a Chicago television news report that Brayman says fed rumors in Mexico that his client "had turned against Guzman."
"That is simply not true," Brayman told the judge, emphasizing that there was no deal to cooperate with prosecutors. "He doesn't intend ... to testify against anyone ever."
Speaking to reporters outside court, Brayman explained that Hernandez feared the rumors had put the lives of his wife and children in danger.
"There's no solid information [of an actual threat], but his wife and children are certainly trying to be unavailable at this point, and hopefully they'll be safe," Brayman said. "He's not afraid of El Chapo, but just to have that rumor out there, you never know what's going to happen in Mexico."
Hernandez had planned to enter a blind plea, meaning it isn't part of any deal with the government. It also means that prosecutors made no promises to him in advance in order to secure a guilty plea. U.S. attorneys would not comment Friday on the details of the case beyond what was said in court.
Guzman, leader of the world's most powerful drug cartel, was captured about two weeks ago after more than a decade-long manhunt.
Hernandez is scheduled to go to trial May 12 in a trafficking conspiracy case in Chicago that names Guzman as a co-conspirator.
The U.S. attorney's office in Chicago indicted the two men and several others in 2009 in a $1 billion conspiracy to use speed boats, submarines and even a cargo plane to move drugs from South America to Mexico, then to the U.S.
Hernandez, extradited to Chicago in 2012, is described in court filings as a skilled logistics chief who arranged cocaine shipments by train from Guadalajara, Mexico, to Chicago for the Sinaloa cartel. The cargo was listed as furniture.
Hernandez, whose nickname is "Alfredo Compadre," also allegedly boasted to cooperating witnesses about sending 747 cargo planes full of clothes on humanitarian missions to South America, according to court filings. They'd return to Mexico with up to 13 tons of cocaine.
He was charged with multiple counts, including conspiring to import cocaine into the United States. A conviction on all counts carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
A gray-haired Hernandez appeared at Friday's hearing in a bright orange jumpsuit, his legs shackled. He listened to the proceedings on a headset with the help of an interpreter.
His attorney said Hernandez had planned to change to his plea to guilty in part in hopes of getting a prison sentence close to the mandatory minimum of 10 years on one of the counts.
"We just wanted to try to resolve the case at that point," he explained.
He said Guzman's capture had nothing to do with that plan.
Chicago is among seven U.S. cities where Guzman has been indicted, and federal officials in the city had said – long before Guzman's capture – that they wanted him to face trial in Chicago one day.
Mexican officials, however, formally charged Guzman after his capture, signaling they want the first crack at prosecuting him.