BROOKLYN (CN) – For the first time ever, federal prosecutors brought one of their biggest weapons in the drug war to the witness stand Tuesday in the case against a Mexican kingpin. And with his testimony comes a closer look at the distribution of illicit drugs within their final destination: the United States.
Long-awaited star witness Pedro Flores, 37, a Chicago-born trafficker who moved massive amounts of cocaine and heroin with his identical twin brother Margarito before they both flipped to become Drug Enforcement Administration informants in 2008, took the stand against Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in his New York trial.
The Flores brothers’ statements “led directly to the charging of approximately 54 defendants in 2009,” according to their 2015 sentencing memorandum. Guzman, their alleged former associate, has pleaded not guilty in Brooklyn federal court to charges of drug trafficking, money laundering and conspiracy.
Pedro and Margarito Flores surrendered to U.S. Marshals in late November 2008. But for a few months prior to that surrender they served as double agents, continuing their drug distribution business while secretly recording phone calls and coordinating with DEA minders.
The soft-spoken Pedro — testifying in English, unlike other cooperating witnesses so far — wore navy prison scrubs and a wedding band and occasionally mumbled his answers, prompting Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Fels to tell him to speak up. He spun slightly in his chair and scratched his stubbly chin.
He’d gotten an early start in the business, he said. At age 7 or 8, Flores started helping his drug-trafficker father with his business by translating during deals and loading and unloading shipments. By 1998, when the twins were in their late teens, they had taken over the customer base of their older brother, who’d been arrested for drug trafficking.
Eventually, according to their sentencing memo, the Flores brothers became a “pipeline” for cartels to get drugs to wholesale customers in several major U.S. cities, who could then distribute them further.
In the early 2000s, the Flores brothers were working with a Sinaloa Cartel affiliate named Guadalupe Ledesma, a former associate of their father’s. Ledesma’s boss, they later learned, was “the man,” as Flores called him – Guzman.
Flores moved from the U.S. to Mexico in 2004 while under indictment in Wisconsin. He had his first meeting with Guzman in May 2005, he testified Tuesday. He’d been flown to the meeting spot in a small private jet, to a runway dug into the side of a mountain. On the way to the hideout, Flores saw a naked man tied to a tree with a chain, but does not know what happened to him.
Guzman was waiting for him under a palapa, with two walkie-talkies, in jeans and a T-shirt, Flores told jurors Tuesday. Like the American he was, for that first meeting with “the man,” Flores wore jean shorts, as well as a T-shirt and jewelry, inspiring Guzman to crack a joke.
“With all that money, [you] couldn’t afford the rest of the pants?” Flores said Guzman asked him. Guzman also apparently commented on the jewelry, adding that the only thing missing was a dress.
Flores also came bearing gifts for the Sinaloa Cartel leader: two gold-plated Desert Eagle handguns. The guns were not well-received by the kingpin, he said.
“They weighed like 15 pounds each,” Flores told the jurors.
At a later meeting, Flores testified, he gifted “El Chapo” with a pair of jean shorts in a “box that looked like a Viagra box,” which gave Guzman a giggle.
The Flores brothers had been having trouble with Ledesma, whom Pedro believed to be behind a traumatic kidnapping he’d undergone over a debt they owed him. Guzman had intervened to set Flores free, according to the sentencing memo.
“He said, ‘We’re going to be able to fix it,’” Flores testified Tuesday. Guzman assured Flores that if Ledesma didn’t voluntarily come talk things out, he would make him come. Ledesma had been lying to Guzman about what the brothers were up to, he said.
But if he made Ledesma show up, Guzman allegedly continued, he wanted to give each of the Flores twins a gun and have them shoot Ledesma, “one in each eye.”
That did not ultimately happen, and Flores testified he had never killed anyone or ordered anyone killed. He did, however, say that Guzman had told him he’d had one of his workers kill Ledesma, suffocating him with a plastic bag.
Flores also testified Tuesday to another verbal expression of violence by Guzman during that first meeting. The kingpin had asked Flores if he could read English, and when he said yes, showed him a news article about a cocaine and heroin seizure. Guzman wanted to know if the article looked legitimate.
When Flores told him it looked phony, Guzman turned to one of his workers and said in Spanish, “Execute.”
Unnerved, the Flores brothers went back to their hotel and searched for the article. When they realized it was real, they called Juan “Juancho”Guzman Rocha, Guzman’s cousin and lieutenant, and asked him to tell Guzman. Flores testified he didn’t know what happened next.
The Flores brothers started working with Guzman and his alleged partner, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada. In the years he worked with them, from 2005 to 2008, Flores testified, he received over 60 tons of cocaine from Mexico, at least 38 tons of which came from Guzman or Zambada. With the average New York City price for a kilogram of cocaine at $21,000, Flores estimated he turned over $800 million to the kingpins in those three years.
The brothers used a network of warehouses in and around Chicago. They moved drugs that came through the Ciudad Juarez border to Kentucky, New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Detroit. Drugs that entered through Baja California were moved to Los Angeles, then Vancouver and Chicago. They had also shipped to Milwaukee and Minneapolis.
Flores moved “tons” of Guzman’s cocaine to New York City over the years, he said, and explained that he picked stash houses in the nicest neighborhoods to avoid suspicion, including one with a “beautiful view of the Brooklyn Bridge.”
The Flores brothers double-dipped, also moving goods for Guzman’s former allies, the Beltran-Leyvas, in what he called “this sweet spot in the cartel where we could just focus on making money.” This later became a problem when Arturo Beltran-Leyva began to feud with Guzman and Zambada, and was part of the reason the Flores twins decided to flip.
The main reason he turned himself in, Flores said, was that his wife got pregnant in 2008, which he said got him thinking about the future, “or lack of future.”
“I can’t promise my family tomorrow,” he explained. “I felt that they deserved better.”
On back-to-back days in 2012, Flores and his brother pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and conspiracy to distribute controlled substances.
Though he has little prison time to left serve, possibly as few as two years of his 14-year sentence, Flores has been far from a perfect inmate.
“[I] just have a hard time following the rules, I guess,” he said on the witness stand.
He testified to storing money in other inmates’ commissary accounts to circumvent the $360 limit, and to paying another prisoner to put up two billboards for his wife outside the prison, though defense attorney Bill Purpura objected before the jury could learn what was on those billboards.
He also broke some rules while he was in DEA custody, he admitted.
“I had an opportunity to sneak away with [my wife] into the bathroom and I got her pregnant,” Flores told the jury. They snuck away twice in all, he said.
While it accepted their cooperation, the DEA did not provide the Flores brothers with recording equipment, Flores said, nor would it pay for drugs. So in the fall of 2008, they continued with their regular business, tapping their former colleagues’ phones with equipment Flores bought at a Mexico RadioShack.
Though none of the calls prosecutor Fels played for the court on Tuesday contained direct audio of Guzman, one call was between the Flores brothers and Guzman’s son, Jesus Alfredo Guzman Salazar, also known as “Alfredillo.”
The sentencing memorandum points to two damning recordings directly with Guzman, which may come later in Flores’ testimony. He is still on direct examination.