BROOKLYN (CN) – The first cocaine supplier to testify in the trial of Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman described the drug-trafficking industry as an agile enterprise that adapted to its working conditions.
Born in Palmira, Colombia, and raised in nearby Cali, Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia, also known as “Chupeta” or “Lollipop,” rose to become a young leader of the country’s powerful and violent Cártel del Norte del Valle, or North Valley Cartel.
In about two decades, Ramirez smuggled roughly 400,000 kilograms of Colombian cocaine to the U.S. – over 440 tons.
His primary Mexican middlemen were the Sinaloa Cartel, the group of which Guzman was allegedly a leader. Guzman now faces 17 counts of drug trafficking, money laundering and conspiracy charges.
Ramirez decided to work with Guzman because “at that time, [the early 1990s,] he was the best and he was the quickest,” he told the Brooklyn jury Monday. “And that was the argument he presented me to charge me more than the other Mexican drug traffickers.”
The two met for the first time in a Mexico City hotel in the 1990s, Ramirez testified, along with a few others. Guzman drove a hard bargain — the Sinaloa Cartel would keep 40 percent from each cocaine shipment, about 3 percent higher than other Mexican traffickers had charged him to move the drugs north through Mexico and across the border.
But it seemed Ramirez thought the higher price was worth it, and their first shipment made it to Los Angeles in “less than a week,” he said. “I did not expect it to be that quickly.”
Other traffickers sometimes took a month or more for the trip, Ramirez explained. And 90 percent of the cocaine the Sinaloa Cartel transported for him ended up in New York, where it was worth the most.
It was the beginning of what Ramirez described as years of innovation by the groups to help their illegal shipments avoid capture. When the authorities brought down and followed cartel planes and a Durango airstrip was difficult to reach, Ramirez and the Sinaloa Cartel switched to fishing vessels in the Pacific.
“Nobody had used this method,” he said. “It was a virgin method.”
But Ramirez was so sure it would work that he put up 10,000 kilograms of cocaine for the inaugural journey in a shrimp boat received by the Sinaloa Cartel and sent specifically for Guzman, he said.
Ramirez, 55, cut a physically unusual figure on the witness stand. In an attempt to evade arrest, he had “three or four” plastic surgery operations on his face, he said.
For his testimony Thursday and most of Monday, he wore dark gloves and a black puffy coat with a turned-up collar, rendering him vaguely vampiric. Prominent, pale cheekbones and a jutting jawline exaggerated the gaunt hollows of Ramirez’s cheeks. He has a small mouth and a thin, sharp nose. He looked relaxed in his chair, spinning back and forth and seeming to take pride in recounting his days as a trafficker, referring to details as “my cocaine,” “my boats,” “my lab,” and “my pilots.”
The FBI estimates that at its peak, Ramirez’s North Valley Cartel helped move an incredible 60 percent of all cocaine that ended up in the U.S. – 500 tons between 1990 and 2004.
He is in the witness protection program in the U.S. prison where he resides, according to his testimony and a sidebar conversation last week. The Colombian government seized $1 billion from him upon his 2007 arrest in Brazil. He forfeited another $1.2 million to the U.S.
When Guzman and Ramirez decided to use the fishing vessels, Guzman upped his price to 45 percent of the cocaine for the new method, telling Ramirez that the corruption payments were getting expensive, as the cartel now had to keep members of the Mexican Navy happy.
“What could I do with that?” Ramirez said Monday. “They set the price.”
He described a visit to a corrupt Mexico City prison to run the new idea by the Sinaloa cartel “padrino,” or “godfather,” Juan José “El Azul” Esparragoza Moreno.
Eventually, Sinaloa Cartel fishing vessels started meeting Ramirez’s ships further and further from the Mexican coast, Ramirez said, to avoid capture. They used shrimp boats because their range would not raise suspicion, as shrimp boats frequently traveled far offshore. They built secret compartments for the cocaine and carried tons of ice to store the “catch.” Sometimes they even bought fish to complete the charade. Eventually they started using submarines as well.
Ramirez also corroborated testimony from other witnesses, such as describing the golden cocaine flask and spoon used by former Guzman underling Miguel Angel Martinez, or “El Gordo.”
Ramirez sent five fishing vessels to Guzman, he testified, before Guzman’s first arrest. He sent a total of more than 20 boats to the Sinaloa Cartel until 1998, each carrying an average of 10,000 kilos of cocaine. He said that to move the drugs from there, the cartel used tunnels, tankers, small cars and planes, tractor trailers and trains.
When Ramirez was released in 2000 from a stint in Colombian jail, he said he decided to drop out of the drug trade. He sensed legal trouble ahead.
“I was super rich, so I said, ‘Enough is enough,’” he told the jury.
“Did you get out [of the drug trade]?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Goldbarg asked him.
“No,” Ramirez said to some laughter. But he said he did change his tactics, shifting into a role as the man “behind the curtain.”
He was also a brutal leader, testifying to having ordered the murders of about 150 people between 1989 and 2007 and personally murdering an unnamed person himself in 2004 by shooting them in the head and face.
Ramirez said the maximum number of years his U.S. sentence could be reduced with his cooperation is five.
He faces cross-examination by Guzman’s defense team Tuesday.