World / Crime & Legal

'El Chapo' was just co-leader of Mexico's Sinaloa drug cartel, informant tells NY trial


Drug baron Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman co-headed the Sinaloa cartel, a drug trafficker turned cooperating witness told his U.S. trial Wednesday, skewering defense claims that the defendant is little more than a scapegoat.

Jesus “El Rey” Zambada, brother of still-at-large co-defendant Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, was one of the first witnesses to take the stand after the defense and prosecution delivered opening statements in the Brooklyn federal court trial, which is expected to last more than four months.

The 57-year-old testified that he was a sub-leader in the Sinaloa cartel from 1992 until his arrest in 2008, was its main leader in Mexico City and that he established a system to track payments from U.S. clients.

Undercutting the defense argument that the real culprit is the absent co-defendant and a brother of the informant, Zambada told the second day of the trial that the cartel was indeed co-headed by his brother and Guzman.

He called Guzman “one of the most important drug traffickers in Mexico.” Asked by the U.S. prosecution who was boss of the cartel, Zambada replied “mainly” Guzman and his brother.

The 61-year-old defendant, neatly dressed in a suit, looked and listened attentively, once taking notes and passing them to his lawyer.

Guzman, considered the world’s largest drug trafficker since the death of Colombia’s Pablo Escobar, is on trial in New York under draconian security arrangements after twice escaping from prison in Mexico.

He faces 11 trafficking, firearms and money laundering charges that will likely see him incarcerated for the rest of his life in a maximum security U.S. prison if he is convicted.

“I was part of the cartel, I was the leader in Mexico City,” testified the informant, confirming that a “government group” was bribed in exchange for “protection.”

On Tuesday, defense lawyer Jeffrey Lichtman explosively claimed that the Sinaloa cartel bribed Mexico’s departing President Enrique Pena Nieto and his predecessor, Felipe Calderon. Both issued swift denials.

Zambada detailed how cocaine would arrive from Colombia, by boat, plane or road, before being counted and transported to the U.S. border by truck.

Prior to Zambada, the first government witnesses to testify were a U.S. customs agent and a forensic chemist who worked for the DEA.

In concluding his opening statement Wednesday, defense lawyer Jeffrey Lichtman sought to discredit the more than a dozen informants expected to take the stand as “scum,” “degenerates” and “liars.”

“These are people who have cheated their whole life,” he said. “These are people who lie every day.”

He singled out Miguel Angel Martinez, reputedly Guzman’s former right-hand man, for his “unbelievable” cocaine habit and for lying about it for 15 years.

“His nose basically fell off for sniffing cocaine,” Lichtman told the jury.

Prosecutors say that from 1989 to 2014, the Sinaloa cartel smuggled 340,892 pounds (154,626 kg) of cocaine into the United States, as well as heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana, raking in $14 billion.

They have spent years accumulating more than 300,000 pages and at least 117,000 recordings in evidence against Guzman, whom they said kept his “own private army,” a diamond-encrusted pistol and a gold-plated AK-47.

Guzman has been held in solitary confinement since being extradited to the United States in January 2017.

He has been banned from having any direct contact or communication with his beauty queen wife, 29-year-old Emma Coronel, who has nonetheless attended the first two days of his trial, on Tuesday taking selfies with fans outside.