SITTING down with Silvia Raquenel Villanueva can be a nerve-racking experience and not just because she is a sharp-tongued lawyer who cusses like a sailor if provoked. There is also the delicate question of the people who want her dead.
Four times, there have been attempts on her life. Pistols have been fired at her. Explosives have been thrown. Automatic gunfire has been sprayed. She has been hit in the head, in the buttocks, in the lung, in the stomach, and miraculously, each time she has managed to recover.
She now has bodyguards and protective glass on the office window next to her oversize desk. Still, Mexico’s most prominent “narco abogada,” or lawyer to the drug lords, continues to receive threats, which she, a religious woman with a serious demeanor, deflects with prayer, a lighted candle in her office and, on the walls, scores of crosses and images of Jesus Christ.
“I can presume that God wants me to continue working in what I’ve always done,” she said. “I’m a lawyer for people who really need one.”
She does acknowledge being a bit more circumspect, given all the assassination attempts, about whom she will represent. A bit. She still had no qualms a few months ago about signing on as a client a police officer whom the authorities had charged with kidnapping and killing the teenage son of a prominent businessman in a case that had traumatized the nation. But she backed off and found the officer a different lawyer after she said she received calls promising one more attempt on her life.
NONETHELESS, Ms. Raquenel has not withdrawn enough from the dangerous life for her family. “My father says, ‘You’re so hard-headed. That’s why they shot you in the head and you lived.’ ”
Ms. Raquenel can rattle off the exact dates of the various attempts on her life as though they were holidays. There was May 13, 1998, when an explosive went off at the front door of her office. And March 23, 2000, when she was hit by gunfire when entering a Mexico City hotel with her client, a police commander charged with working for traffickers on the side. Then came Aug. 31, 2000, when someone stormed into her office and shot her eight times, and Nov. 13, 2001, when someone fired at her on the courthouse steps in Monterrey.
“Some people would have left the country,” she said. “Not me. God has put me in the eye of the hurricane. The people I defend could be the worst of the worst or they could be innocent.”
Ms. Raquenel appears to care little about which of the competing drug cartels her clients happen to be affiliated with. She represented Carlos Resendez Bertolucci, a federal law enforcement official accused of collaborating with the gulf drug cartel. She has represented suspects linked with the Sinaloa cartel and with the Zetas, which are a group of military deserters accused of instigating much of the drug-related violence that Mexico is currently enduring.
What riles Ms. Raquenel far more than a criminal is a government official profiting off crime, and there have been numerous examples in Mexico of powerful people found to be working for the traffickers. The really big traffickers, she argues, do not need her services since they have politicians, prosecutors and police officers on their payroll to make sure no charges stick.
The last seven years have been uneventful when it comes to actual violence against her, but threats have still come in. Being a target has not turned her into a nervous wreck though. She is fatalistic about when and where her end will come, and she vows to continue her aggressive advocacy of any client she chooses to defend.
As a single mother, though, it clearly does bother her that her teenage daughter might be orphaned one day, and that has made her turn down clients, she said, that she might otherwise have represented.
Her client list has been a rogues’ gallery of drug traffickers, corrupt cops and other ne’er-do-wells, or suspected ones since Ms. Raquenel has managed to free many of them from jail by pointing out procedural flaws, or what she prefers to call manufactured evidence on the part of the state.
SHE is similarly dismissive of the charges that were filed against her in the fall of 2006, which led to her detention for three months. In that case, she was accused but never convicted of being involved in the kidnapping and killing of a law enforcement official.
“The authorities have a perverse imagination,” she said, indicating it was not the first time she was falsely charged. In 2001, charges that she had been carrying an unlicensed firearm failed to stick. In fact, the organized crime division of the federal attorney general’s office that investigated her was recently found to be overrun with officials receiving secret payments from traffickers.
As a result of her detention, she said the American Consulate in Mexico City revoked her visa to visit the United States. (A spokeswoman at the American Embassy in Mexico City declined to comment on the case, saying such decisions were considered private.) Ms. Raquenel had used the visa to represent one of her clients who was providing testimony against a Mexican drug kingpin extradited to Texas. Her anger at losing the ability to cross the border is clear, although she said that the American economy would suffer as a result of her being barred from making shopping trips over to McAllen, Tex.
That is not to say, she insists, that she is extremely well off. Her bare-bones office in this industrial city in the northern Mexican state of Nuevo León is next door to a similarly nondescript home. Although she acknowledges that she has earned some six-figure payments from clients, she says she has no hidden accounts loaded with drug profits and lives not much more comfortably than she did as one of six children growing up in a working-class family.
Ms. Raquenel, who is in her mid-50s, admits to having made mistakes over the years. “I’m only human,” she said, growing emotional but declining to delve into exactly what had gone awry in her life. Authorities, speaking not for attribution, describe her as someone who has gotten far too close to the criminal life and has profited handsomely from dirty money.
SHE has her admirers though. At least six different bands have written songs about her, with titles like “The Lady of Steel” and “The Bulletproof Lawyer,” although it should be said that some of the groups have also been known to write ballads about drug traffickers themselves.
Each of the crosses nailed to the wall at the entrance of her office is from a client she has sprung from jail, Ms. Raquenel said. There are scores of them, too many to count on the way out, with the door open and the bodyguards not around and the possibility lingering that someone, somewhere might still have a grudge against her.
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Tags: the lawyer of the drug lords, her life, the lady of steel, monterrey, nuevo leon.
Location: Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico (load item map)
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