Witness Details Roots of Sinaloa Cartel at ‘El Chapo’ Trial

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – Just one week in what is expected to be a months-long trial for drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, jurors heard painstaking testimony from the government’s first witness on the logistics of running the Sinaloa cartel.

Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, surrounded by US Marshals, waves to his wife as he enters a federal courtroom in Brooklyn where his high-security trial got underway on Nov. 13, 2018. The infamous Mexican drug lord has been held in solitary confinement since his extradition to the United States early last year. Guzman pleaded not guilty to charges that he amassed a multi-billion-dollar fortune smuggling tons of cocaine and other drugs in a vast supply chain that reached New York, New Jersey, Texas and elsewhere north of the border. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

Jesus Zambada Garcia, whose nickname “El Rey” translates as “The King,” is the first to testify of an expected 16 cooperators.

In a 19-year career with the cartel that ended in his Mexico City arrest in 2008, Zambada said his rank was subleader, just below his brother, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada Garcia, and Guzman, who he said ran the cartel as partners.

Zambada said the cartel was organized as any government agency with access to mind-boggling resources.

Explaining that Guzman did not personally run drugs across the border, Zambada said such responsibility was left to the cartel’s lower ranks.

“Well, he was the boss, the leader,” Zambada said. “He was a person who was very wanted. He wasn’t going to be doing the work that the other workers in the organization could do.”

Zambada also spoke to investments in drug shipments that Guzman made along with fellow partners in the cartel leadership. He said this allowed Guzman in the early 2000s to turn a profit of $78 million per investor if the cocaine made it the whole way to New York City. Zambada said on one occasion a ship crew headed to Puerto Vallarta had thought they would be intercepted and sank the ship, along with the 20 tons of cocaine it was carrying. El Mayo used deep-sea divers to recover the drugs, his brother said.

Once a top lieutenant in drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s cartel, Jesus Zambada is now a cooperating witness describing the Sinaloa cartel’s history of greed, cunning and violence as it built a cocaine-smuggling empire that made billions of dollars by flooding the market in large U.S. cities. (Photo via U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York)

Bribes from the cartel were widespread, said Zambada. Though he offered few names, he claimed that they reached the Mexican Attorney General’s office, known as PGR; high-ranking police officials; military authorities and special operations; highway police; district judicial officials and district police; and even Interpol. Zambada also said he had personally bribed officials at Guzman’s behest, including $100,000 to a general named Gilberto Toledano so Guzman could traffic Colombian cocaine through the state of Guerrero.

Zambada has a college degree in accounting, he explained, so he kept the books, creating a system for collecting money from cocaine clients in the U.S. He also controlled the airport in Mexico City and the cartel’s warehouses there. Though the cartel is infamous for its violence, Zambada claimed he had never personally killed anyone.

On Thursday, however, in a somewhat detached and clinical way, Zambada testified to some of the more violent activities in which the cartel took part, including several wars with rivals in the trafficking business.

“There are always a lot of deaths,” said Zambada, of the wars.

The cartel’s sicarios, or assassins, answered to Mayo and Guzman, Zambada said, and could give the authorization to “eliminate” rivals. Then the cartel would interfere in murder investigations with bribes.

Zambada also offered his version of several well-known and controversial Mexican murders, including a 1992 shootout at Puerto Vallerta nightclub Christine. One of Guzman’s biggest rivals during the war between the Tijuana cartel and the Sinaloa cartel was Ramon Arellano-Felix, who was in charge of the sicarios for the Tijuana cartel, Zambada said.

El Mayo later told his brother what had happened, Zambada testified.

“My compa Chapo went there and tried to kill [Ramon] but he escaped,” Zambada said El Mayo had told him. “Some of Ramon’s gunmen were killed, and several customers.” The massacre killed six in all.

Ramon Arellano Felix was eventually killed in 2002 in a Mazatlan shootout with police. Police stopped him in Mazatlan, and when he tried to escape into a hotel “they shot him,” Zambada said.

“They put a bullet in his neck and he fell down dead,” the witness added.

Who exactly fired the deadly bullet is not clear, though Zambada indicated the police were working with the Sinaloa cartel.

Prosecutors say Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman used tunnels like this one to smuggle drugs under the U.S. border. (Photo via U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York)

Zambada said El Mayo had told him Guzman was pleased by Ramon’s death.

“If anything had given him pleasure, it was to have killed Ramon Arellano,” Zambada testified.

Zambada also detailed his version of Guzman’s storied first escape from prison, when he allegedly snuck out hidden in a laundry cart pushed by correctional officer Francisco Camberos Rivera, whom Zambada called “El Chito.” Zambada himself found a safe location for Guzman’s helicopter to land near the city of San Juan del Rio in Mexico state, then drove him the nearly three hours to Mexico City, he said.

Police were waiting for them in the city, Zambada testified, and surrounded the car, which worried Guzman.

“Don’t worry,” Zambada assured him. These are our people; they’re here to protect us.”

Guzman, who faces a 17-count superseding indictment here in Brooklyn, was already convicted in Mexico of related charges. Though suspected of having run the Sinaloa cartel for over two decades, Guzman’s defense has sought to pin much of the blame on El Mayo, a co-defendant who is still free.

Guzman’s attorney Jeffrey Lichtman said  El Mayo, currently No. 2 on the Drug Enforcement Agency’s most-wanted list, was the real leader of the Sinaloa Cartel while Guzman, thanks to his mythical status and bigger name, took the fall. Cross-examination of Zambada by the defense is expected to begin Monday.

Zambada first took the stand Wednesday afternoon, wearing navy prison scrubs, an orange T-shirt and dark glasses, lounging nonchalantly in his chair. He and his former colleague Guzman at times made direct eye contact, gazing at each other coolly. Zambada followed U.S. Customs special agent Carlos Salazar — who testified to having discovered intricate tunnels between Agua Prieta, Mexico and Douglas, Arizona — and retired Drug Enforcement Administration forensic chemist Robert C. Arnold.

Packages of cocaine seized by U.S. officials.(Photo via U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York)

During two days of direct questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney Gina Parlovecchio, Zambada testified that the cartel imported cocaine from Colombia and methamphetamine from Asia, while marijuana and poppy flowers for heroin were grown and processed in Mexico.

Zambada said 100 percent of the cocaine the Sinaloa cartel imported to Mexico was destined for the United States, he testified. Guzman earned the nickname “El Rapido” from his Colombian colleagues for the speed with which he made shipments.

The cartel used a wide variety of means to smuggle the drugs over and under the U.S. border, Zambada said, making parts of his testimony sound like excerpts from a bizarre children’s book as he listed gas tanks, cars, pick-ups, tractor-trailers, trains, and tunnels. To get drugs to and through Mexico, Zambada said, the group used “boats, fast boats, submarines, planes — small, medium-sized planes, and jets, fast boats, boats, fishing boats, merchant ships, planes small and big, and legal business routes” in gas tankers, transporting gas, with a hidden tank inside for the cocaine, like Russian dolls.

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