The arrest and extradition in January of reputed Mexican drug lord Juan García Abrego created something of a stampede among criminal lawyers. The McAllen office of Abrego’s longtime counselor, Roberto “Bobby Joe” Yzaguirre, was overwhelmed by sales pitches from attorneys all over the country, forceful or flattering letters and faxes explaining why they and they alone should be hired as part of the defense team. Farther north, in Houston, speculation about who would get the job was rampant. Florida dope lawyers pumped their Texas colleagues (“Is it you?” they wanted to know). One lawyer sparked a blaze of gossip after spying the name “Frank Rubino” on the visitors log at the Harris County jail, where Abrego was incarcerated. (“Wasn’t me,” the Miami attorney for dictator—drug smuggler Manuel Noriega said.)
Though Abrego could be quite charming and humorous—“You’d feel very comfortable if he was selling you a car,” said one acquaintance—he would not hold much allure for the average person. After all, the 51-year-old car thief turned kingpin was alleged to have presided over the flow of Colombian cocaine through northern Mexico into the U.S., an operation that reaped $20 billion a year, according to estimates by the Drug Enforcement Agency. He was believed to be armed and dangerous—Abrego’s indictment charged him with authorizing “the murders of numerous individuals,” which were thought to include everyone from business rivals to nosy journalists. There were additional charges of money laundering, drug smuggling, and attempted bribery. There were dark hints of political assassinations, of corruption within the now tainted administration of former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari. There was the dubious distinction, in 1995, of a spot on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. Innocent until proven guilty, okay, but either way, Juan García Abrego looked at best like a pretty bad guy.
Unless, of course, you were a criminal lawyer: then you knew that everyone was entitled to the best defense possible, that if society cannot treat the worst of us with fairness, then what of the rest of us? Maybe the extradition wasn’t legit. Maybe the investigation was fishy—the DEA and the FBI were rumored to have cut deals with more than seventy felons to get their man. There were lots of maybes, except, of course, for one: The Abrego case was the legal equivalent of a gusher. Along with a fee that could hit seven figures, it offered lots of media coverage that doubled as free advertising—in other words, big money up front and down the road in the form of future clients. Juan García Abrego might get life without parole, but the lawyer who represented him couldn’t lose.
Roberto Yzaguirre knew this as well as anyone, of course, but as the only lawyer actually hired by Abrego, he had other concerns. Having represented clients facing drug-related charges in the Valley for more than twenty years, he knew that alone he lacked the resources to go against the federal government in a case of this magnitude. And as a man whose courtliness belied his shrewdness, he had known whom he wanted as partners from the beginning. Tony Canales, a criminal lawyer from Corpus, was an obvious choice: The former U.S. attorney was an old friend who spoke Spanish and knew the ways of the federal government, particularly the federal government in South Texas, better than just about anyone. But Yzaguirre needed someone else to complete his team, someone who was not just a great trial lawyer and a great drug lawyer but a great book lawyer, someone with the intellect to, at a moment’s notice, tip the vagaries of the Constitution in his client’s favor. Someone who, if need be, could work out the negotiations should Abrego decide to cooperate with the government, testifying against an even bigger fish like, say, Salinas himself. Someone who had no problem representing the worst of us and, in fact, saw that as a matter of conscience. When you came right down to it, there really was just one man for the job.
THE ATTORNEYS GATHERED IN MIAMI’S fountainebleau hotel for the 1996 midwinter meeting of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers make way for Gerald Goldstein like supplicants in a temple. He has flown in from his San Antonio home this morning and will fly out shortly after his speech. Whipping a cart of visual aids through the hotel’s gilded warrens, he has the air of a man unable or unwilling to downshift. Even without his haste, Goldstein would stand out amid these cheerful conventioneers in their sport shirts and jeans. His salt-and-pepper hair is slicked back, taming curls that twenty years ago approximated an Afro. Long past the age of love beads and bell-bottoms, when he first made a name for himself defending conscientious objectors, Goldstein now wears scholarly tortoiseshell glasses, which complement his impeccably crafted sport coat, which is enhanced by a contrasting orange-and-green tie and the crispest