NEW YORK – The U.S. trial of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman has offered a screenplay-worthy picture of the lawlessness and excesses during his rise to power as Mexico’s most infamous drug lord.
Since the trial got underway on Nov. 13, witnesses have described how Guzman used tunnels dug under the border and fake jalapeno cans to smuggle tons of cocaine into the United States during the 1990s and early 2000s.
The Sinaloa cartel, sometimes referred to by insiders as “The Federation,” made hundreds of millions of dollars, most of it in U.S. currency collected in such volume it had to be stashed in safe houses while the gang figured out what to do with it. Guzman spent some of it on a private zoo, a diamond-encrusted pistol and paying off police and politicians.
That’s all according to a cast of characters who have taken the witness stand ranging from former cartel members to a Colombian drug kingpin with a freakish face that he chose to alter with plastic surgery in a failed attempt to stay under the radar.
Here’s a look at some testimony highlights from the trial, which is expected to last until early next year:
Smuggling by the ton
The Sinaloa cartel had many crafty ways to smuggle drugs across the border, but perhaps none were craftier than La Comadre brand pepper cans.
Former cartel member Miguel Angel Martinez testified in federal court in Brooklyn he helped supervise a warehouse in Mexico City where workers hid cocaine in the cans so it could be trucked over the border.
The trucks carried 3,000 cans at a time to Los Angeles, he said. He estimated about 25 to 30 tons of cocaine worth up to $500 million got across the border each year.
Behind the scenes, the workers packing the coke into the cans “got intoxicated because whenever you would press the kilos, it would release cocaine into the air.”
Proceeds ended up in Tijuana, where Guzman would send his three private jets every month to pick it up, Martinez said. On average, each plane would carry up to $10 million home.
The cash, he said, helped pay for luxuries like an Acapulco beach house featuring a private zoo and a trip to Switzerland for Guzman to get an exotic “anti-aging” treatment.
Bribery as usual
A turncoat cartel member named Jesus Zambada took the stand to describe how he kept watch over tons of cocaine stashed in a Mexico City warehouse. But a more important job for him was buying off authorities at a cost of about $300,000 a month – a price that earned Guzman a police escort after one of his notorious escapes from prison.
He testified that Guzman looked troubled at the sight of the Mexico City police approaching the car. “Don’t worry about it,” Zambada told Guzman. “These are our people. No one is going to touch us from here on out.”
Testimony suggested the prisons were on the take, too. Martinez claimed when he and Guzman visited a drug boss behind bars, other inmates had put together a lavish meal.
“There was a music group and they had everything, whatever you would want to eat. Whiskey, cognac,” Martinez said. “You could choose between lobster and sirloin and pheasant.”
The latest star witness for the government has been more notable for his appearance than his testimony.
Former Colombian drug lord Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia is perhaps best known for his plastic surgery. He told the jury last week that he has had at least three surgeries to change his appearance.
The work altered “my jawbone, my cheekbones, my eyes, my mouth, my ears, my nose,” he said.
His testimony made a case for ranking him at the top of the narco-pantheon with Guzman: He said he smuggled 400,000 kilos (881,840 pounds), ordered 150 killings and amassed a fortune so large that he forfeited $1 billion after his arrest in Brazil in 2007.
Ramirez Abadia said he had a cartel business model that included a division entirely devoted to using drug money to bribe authorities to “not do their jobs” to enforce drug laws. He testified that it was clear Guzman had similar arrangements when he flew planes loaded with Colombian cocaine to Mexico, where they were greeted by police officers who helped unload the goods.
Ramirez Abadia resumes testifying on Monday.
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