BROOKLYN (CN) - Life was good for cocaine traffickers in the 1990s, according to a cooperating witness on the stand this week in the trial of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
“The best thing in the world,” a former member of the Sinaloa Cartel said of the business during that time. “Because we formed part of the cocaine boom.”
And Guzman spent his money lavishly, his former underling Miguel Angel Martinez told the jury. A self-described former “manager” of the Sinaloa Cartel, Martinez took the witness stand Monday and remained there on direct examination through Tuesday. He said he was a member of the cartel from 1986 until his arrest in 1998.
“When I met Mr. Guzman, he didn’t have a jet,” Martinez said. But by the 1990s, he testified the alleged Sinaloa Cartel boss had four jets, “a ranch in every single state,” and a house on every major beach, including one $10 million abode in Acapulco complete with a yacht dubbed “Chapito.”
The defendant was also said to have his own zoo in Guadalajara, a ranch with pools and tennis courts as well as tigers, lions, panthers and deer. People could travel on a small train to see the animals, Martinez said.
Guzman faces 17 counts of drug trafficking, conspiracy and money laundering. He owned a personalized, diamond-encrusted pistol and was a generous boss, according to his former underling, who said he once received a diamond Rolex from the kingpin. Martinez, hooked on cocaine for most of the time between 1987 and 1995, said he used one to four grams of the drug “daily” -- so much that his nasal septum perforated -- and carried it around in a gold bottle with a gold spoon.
Court artists were ordered not to sketch Martinez’s likeness. The witness survived attempts on his life in prison -- ordered, he claimed later, by Guzman himself -- and is now in witness protection in the U.S., according to a 2012 New York Times report. He wore a suit and entered the courtroom through the main door.
Prosecutors caused a stir with a filing in the early hours of Tuesday in which they said Guzman’s wife, 29-year-old Emma Coronel, had been caught on security footage with a cellphone in the courthouse. Recorders, cellphones and cameras are banned for most people entering the building, and a separate metal detector scans all trial attendees outside U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan’s courtroom.
Before Martinez took the stand, Cogan said Coronel would have to go back through the metal detector outside the courtroom.
In a sidebar conversation Monday, defense attorney Muriel Colon said the phone belonged to another defense lawyer, Michael Lambert, who allowed Coronel to use Google Translate in the courthouse cafeteria.
Judge Cogan said he’d figured it was something “innocuous” like that and declined to sanction any member of the defense team. He did not seal that portion of the transcript despite the defense’s concern it might look bad if the conversation was made public. Instead, Cogan made a finding that he fully accepted Colon’s explanation and that there was “no suggestion that defense counsel did anything wrong in this.”
Prosecutors’ motion for sanctions also included an accusation that defense counsel had used cellphones on their visits to Guzman to “facilitate unauthorized...and impermissible contact between the defendant and Ms. Coronel.”
Asked for comment on the accusations in the courthouse hallway Tuesday afternoon, defense lawyer Jeffrey Lichtman said, “It’s pure speculation.”
Martinez’s testimony made it sound like he and Guzman were once quite close. Guzman was godfather, or “compadre,” to Martinez’s son, the witness said Monday, identifying the defendant in the courtroom.
Martinez also went by “El Gordo” to his cartel colleagues. He worked as a pilot and as the liaison with Colombian suppliers, receiving, storing and transporting drug shipments. He also coordinated payments.
“[Guzman] had four or five wives,” Martinez said Tuesday. “We had to pay them all.”
The cartel had an unidentified U.S. Navy pilot making drug runs and bribed everyone from a high-ranking Mexican official to bank employees, Martinez testified.
Guillermo Gonzalez Calderoni, a commander of the Mexican Federal Judicial Police, or PGR, received $10 million on two or three occasions from the Sinaloa Cartel, according to Martinez. The group used Guzman’s jets for the transactions. In exchange, Martinez said, Calderoni acted as an informant for Guzman, who was at war with the Tijuana Cartel at the time, and allowed him to work.
The statements followed testimony last week about other bribes to high-ranking Mexican officials. Cooperating witness Jesus “El Rey” Zambada said the cartel sent “a few million” to a former aide of Mexican President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
Traffickers also allegedly paid off Genaro García Luna, who served as former President Felipe Calderon’s secretary of public security. Zambada said he gave Garcia Luna $3 million on one occasion and another $3 to $5 million a few years later, in the mid-2000s. Garcia Luna and a man believed to be the aide have both denied the accusations.
Martinez said Tuesday he bribed bank employees to allow him to deposit huge amounts of the cartel’s laundered funds, which he brought to the bank in Samsonite suitcases.
Martinez also spoke about the various ways in which the cartel moved drugs. He was demoted from pilot after one incident where he nearly crashed the plane with Guzman on board, and the cartel leader’s bodyguard “wanted to kill me,” he said. But Guzman assigned him to open a fancy office for the cartel in a Mexico City office building, where they pretended to be attorneys.
He said another part of his job was to find clandestine airstrips for planes to be loaded or unloaded. He described one such airstrip in the Colombian jungle where there were “a lot of cows,” and when the plane landed they “pushed all the cattle to one side.”
The cartel used shark and shrimp fishing boats to pick up shipments in international waters, and brought them to shore in smaller Zodiac boats, where Guzman himself sometimes met the load, Martinez said. They used code words – “wine” was jet fuel; “girls” were planes. Cocaine went by “shirts.”
Martinez also described one 1987 incident in which, on Guzman’s orders, he and another man went to Thailand to place an order for white heroin. On the plane back, they got to chatting with people who turned out to be undercover Drug Enforcement Agency agents. But it wasn’t an issue.
“You work for Joaquin?” the police asked when they landed, according to Martinez, before letting them go.