The US trial of one of the most high-profile and prolific drug traffickers the world has ever seen is in full swing, and has been filled with explosive allegations of criminal activity and government complicity.
In the nearly three weeks that have passed since the US trial of former Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” began, prosecutors have tried to paint the capo as a ruthless criminal at the head of a billion dollar criminal enterprise that dominated the cocaine trade into the United States for decades.
The defense, on the other hand, has focused on the jailed leader’s closest associates and alleged government corruption in an effort to deflect the jury’s eyes away from their client and onto what they argue helped El Chapo and his criminal enterprise flourish.
Below, InSight Crime highlights four takeaways from the trial so far based on witness testimony reported by those inside the courtroom.
1. Shrouded in Secrecy
Secrecy has come to define El Chapo’s trial. From the onset, the prosecution has tried to ensure that witness testimony of alleged government corruption is suppressed from the jury.
In his opening statement, one of El Chapo’s lawyers, Jeffrey Lichtman, alleged that former Mexican presidents Felipe Calderón and Enrique Peña Nieto took “hundreds of millions in bribes” from Sinaloa Cartel leader Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada Garcia. Lichtman added that El Mayo “bribes the entire government of Mexico, up to the top.”
However, Judge Brian Cogan later limited, according to New York Times reporter Alan Feuer, the questions that El Chapo’s lawyers could ask Jesus “El Rey” Zambada Garcia — El Mayo’s brother — about the alleged corruption within the Mexican government. Judge Cogan argued the information obtained would not outweigh “protecting individuals” who weren’t apart of the case and “would suffer embarrassment” as a result.
Since, prosecutors have also filed a request that the defense not be allowed to question Jesus Vicente Zambada Niebla, a former high-ranking capo and the son of El Mayo. In 2011, Zambada Niebla told authorities that the cartel allegedly had a deal in place with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Agents would reportedly notify El Chapo’s former lawyer of Mexican security operations that could “endanger the cartel’s leaders.”
The prosecution is also working to prevent the jury from hearing anything about the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ (ATF) failed Operation Fast and Furious. It was designed to bust firearms smugglers and straw purchasers, but US firearms were instead sent to Mexican criminal groups — including the Sinaloa Cartel — and were later linked to the murder of a US Border Patrol agent in 2010 and a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent in 2011.
2. Regional Corruption
As with any criminal group, the Sinaloa Cartel relied heavily on corruption to function. After Lichtman’s initial statement alleging corruption at the highest levels of the Mexican government, misconduct allegations have extended across several sectors of Mexican society, into at least two US law enforcement agencies and throughout Latin America.
Colombian drug trafficker Jorge Milton Cifuentes testified, for example, that an executive at Mexico’s state-owned oil company, Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), met with El Chapo and his former right-hand man Dámaso López Núñez, alias “Licenciado,” to discuss using the company’s oil tankers to smuggle cocaine from Ecuador. The plan was ultimately never put into action.
SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles
Testimony from El Rey also implicated top law enforcement officials, such as former Public Security Secretary Genaro García Luna, for allegedly accepting millions of dollars in bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel to ensure the safe passage of drug shipments.
Ecuador’s army has also been implicated for allegedly facilitating the transfer of cocaine shipments from Colombia into Ecuador and then to Mexico. This is not the first time the institution has been implicated in criminal activity. Several Ecuadorean soldiers were arrested in October 2018 for allegedly supplying weapons to one of Colombia’s most high-profile ex-FARC mafia groups.
3. Mexico’s Cocaine King
One of El Chapo and the Sinaloa Cartel’s primary Colombian associates for shipping cocaine was Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia, alias “Chupeta,” who worked for the once-mighty Norte del Valle Cartel. Chupeta testified that he shipped around 400,000 kilograms of cocaine to the United States throughout his criminal career.
Chupeta’s partnership with the cartel, according to his testimony, spanned nearly two decades. El Chapo allegedly charged a 40 percent rate on cocaine shipments due in large part to his ability to traffic them quickly. Chupeta recalled that El Chapo trafficked cocaine from Sinaloa to the United States in less than a week. For a one ton cocaine shipment, El Chapo would keep 400 kilograms and deliver the remaining cocaine to Chupeta’s contacts in the United States.
But Chupeta wasn’t the only Colombian drug trafficker El Chapo worked with. The prosecution also presented a wiretapped telephone conversation from 2010 in which El Chapo appears to be negotiating the details of a six ton cocaine shipment with members of the now largely demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) guerrilla group.
SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel News and Profile
“You have six, and if we pay you two and a half you can send six over there to Guaya[quil], is that true or not?” El Chapo said.
During the questioning of another drug trafficker, Pedro Flores — who received “hundreds of kilograms” of drugs from El Chapo and the Sinaloa Cartel in Chicago to only later flip on them — the prosecution asked who supplied him.
“The Sinaloa Cartel and the man,” he said.
“Who is the man?” prosecutors asked.
“Mr. Guzmán,” Flores responded.
4. El Chapo’s Lavish Narco Life
El Chapo’s stranglehold on the cocaine trade into the United States allowed him to amass considerable wealth. US prosecutors allege the former drug lord built a $1 billion fortune for himself while the Sinaloa Cartel earned some $14 billion from their illicit activities.
Testimony from Miguel Ángel Martínez, alias “El Gordo,” revealed just how lavish El Chapo’s lifestyle was in the early 1990s. He allegedly owned four jets that allowed him to travel “almost the entire world,” including trips to Europe, Japan and Hong Kong, among others. In addition to that, El Chapo had a yacht named “Chapito” docked at a beach house worth some $10 million that he owned in the paradise turned murder hotspot of Acapulco along Mexico’s Pacific coast.
El Chapo also reportedly had a ranch outfitted with a zoo, El Gordo testified, that featured tigers, lions and panthers, as well as a train that guests could take to travel around. The drug lord apparently spent between $10 million and $12 million per month to maintain his illicit business and family.