- REUTERS/Daniel Aguilar
- The trial of accused Sinaloa cartel chief Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman entered its third month in January.
- Numerous witnesses described his role as the leader of one of the most powerful criminal groups in the world.
- The son of one of Guzman’s closest partners recently took the stand.
A dizzying amount of details about the operations of one of the most powerful criminal organizations in the world has been spilled by witnesses in the trial of accused Sinaloa cartel chief Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, which began in November.
The first days of January saw one of the case’s most high-profile witnesses, Vicente Zambada Niebla, son of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who is considered to be Guzman’s peer within the cartel hierarchy and who Guzman’s defense has tried to cast as the cartel’s true leader.
The 43-year-old Zambada and Guzman, 61, reportedly exchanged nods and smiles when they first saw each other in the courtroom.
Since then, Zambada, nicknamed El Vicentillo, has described in extensive detail the exploits of the cartel that he was involved in from an early age.
- Zambada said Guzman told him about hiding in a laundry cart during his 2001 escape from prison. Guzman said he counted each door the cart passed and, at one point, feared the cart would tip over and reveal him. Zambada also said the cartel hatched a plan to break Guzman’s brother out of jail by lowering a “steel bubble” to lift him and protect him from bullets. Guzman’s brother was killed in prison in 2004.
- Zambada described his father as the cartel’s leader but detailed the close partnership between him and Guzman, saying the latter had no money after his 2001 escape, but the elder Zambada said he’d take care of him, giving him half of a kilo of cocaine for every kilo he got from Colombia, according to Vice reporter Keegan Hamilton.
- Zambada said he acted as a go-between for his father, flying around Mexico to deliver messages on his behalf. In addition to overseeing smuggling throughout the region, Zambada said he imported hundreds of assault rifles and millions of bullets from the US.
- Zambada said the cartel hired families with US citizenship living in El Paso, Texas, to drive across the border several times a day and return to the US with cocaine or drug proceeds hidden in compartments in their cars. Drugs were also hidden in trains to get them from the border region to Chicago, a distribution hub for the cartel.
- On one occasion in 2008, Zambada said the cartel met with representatives from state oil company Pemex to discuss moving 100 tons of cocaine on an oil tanker. Zambada said he didn’t know what came of the shipment because he was arrested a few months after the meeting. (Previous testimony indicated the plan never happened.)
- Zambada said he paid out $1 million a month in bribes to Mexican officials – among them Humberto Eduardo Antimo Miranda, who led the Defense Ministry under President Felipe Calderon and who Zambada said his father had “in his pocket,” and Marco Antonio de Leon Adams, chief bodyguard for President Vicente Fox. Adams, Zambada said, passed the cartel information around in an attempt to recapture Guzman.
- Zambada said he met with the top guard for President Ernesto Zedillo in 1997 to complain about raids against his mother’s businesses in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state.
- Zambada said on occasion he overheard Guzman ask permission to kill a rival, Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes, who was part of the Juarez cartel. (Carrillo Fuentes was later killed in a shootout that also killed his wife, setting off a war that led to skyrocketing violence in Ciudad Juarez between 2008 and 2012.)
- Zambada said he never personally killed anyone but did order several killings. He also said his family was targeted. Around 2008, he learned the Beltran Leyva Organization, then at war with the Sinaloa cartel, was planning to kidnap his wife, kill her, and send him her head. He and his family fled Culiacan.
- Zambada said that in 2007 he asked father for permission to “retire” from the cartel. He said Guzman offered to put him in touch with his contacts at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Zambada didn’t say what came of the offer, but the US has said that within two years, Zambada met with the DEA. Zambada was arrested in Mexico City in 2009.
- Zambada said, in 2012, US federal agents took him from his cell in Chicago one night and put him on the phone with his father, urging him to tell the elder Zambada to surrender. He said he did, and the two talked for several minutes. “He told me he loved me very much,” Zambada said.
Zambada pleaded guilty to drug-trafficking charges in Chicago in 2013, the first sign he could turn against his erstwhile cartel. He pleaded guilty to another trafficking-conspiracy charge in Chicago days before Guzman’s trial began in New York City.
Zambada said on January 3, his first day on the stand, that he was testifying against Guzman in hopes of getting a reduced sentence and that his family had already been brought to the US.
Zambada’s contact with the DEA has led to accusations that the US allowed the Sinaloa cartel to operate in exchange for information on its rivals – while facing trial in Chicago, Zambada’s lawyers said he was spying for the DEA for this very purpose. Prosecutors denied such an arrangement existed, and the judge in the case did not allow Zambada to argue it did. (The judge in Guzman’s case has also prohibited the argument.)
US officials have said contact with such figures is a standard part of investigations. Zambada testified that both his father and Guzman passed on information about their rivals to the US.
Mike Vigil, former chief of international operations for the DEA, said details from just one of the witnesses presented so far would probably have been enough to convict Guzman.
“There’s so many people saying the same thing in terms of drug smuggling, association with Chapo Guzman, tape recordings, ledgers,” Vigil said, that it would be enough to sink Guzman’s defense.
While many had presented accurate details, Vigil disputed parts of their accounts, specifically allegations that US authorities agreed to overlook what cartel figures were doing in exchange for information, and cast doubt on allegations that former Mexican presidents had taken bribes, as previous witnesses have alleged.
Those payments would have been unlikely in light of efforts by previous Mexican leaders to crack down on criminal groups, and had they existed, Vigil added, those leaders would have been less likely to extradite cartel members to the US where they could reveal details.
Guzman’s defense has argued that Zambada’s father, Ismael Zambada, is in fact the cartel leader.
According to New York Times reporter Alan Feuer, Vicente Zambada testified that Guzman “knew I was going to come testify against him.” Even though his testimony implicated Guzman, “My compadre Chapo is not the enemy,” Zambada told the court.
In the months after Guzman’s arrest in January 2016, violence spiked in some parts of Mexico, as a fight for control of the cartel played out between Guzman’s sons, allied with Ismael Zambada, and other rivals. Testimony from Ismael Zambada’s son and brother in Guzman’s trial doesn’t appear to have strained that relationship, Vigil said.
“I don’t think there’s any tension right now. It may cause a little bit of problems for Mayo, but Mayo’s leadership is solid as concrete within the cartel,” but there may be “consternation” within the cartel, Vigil said.
“There has to be,” in light Ismael Zambada’s son and brother testifying, he added. “Chapo loyalists within the cartel may blame Mayo for that, but right now there’s no signs of cracks.”