When the notorious drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was Mexico’s most-wanted fugitive in 2001 following a prison breakout, he was startled to see a police motorcycle pull in front of a car carrying him as it reached the outskirts of Mexico City.
A loyal drug cartel lieutenant behind the wheel explained there actually was nothing to fear – the motorcycle and a police car that came up from the rear were there to give him an escort, not capture him.
Guzman’s notoriety and the public corruption that came with it were described with a breezy delivery and sometimes cinematic detail Thursday by now-turncoat cartel member Jesus Zambada at Guzman’s U.S. drug-trafficking trial.
In his second day on the witness stand in federal court in Brooklyn, Jesus Zambada described the Sinolao 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.
Turf wars that broke out between rival teams of gun-toting sicarios meant “there was always a lot of deaths,” Zambada said, and he admitted he was involved in three murder plots of his own. He also survived a shootout on a Mexico City street with a graze wound on the right the side of his head.
Zambada, 57, who has been in police custody since 2008 and is being held in U.S. custody, is the first of several cooperators who are testifying against Guzman in hopes of leniency at sentencing. The defense says the deals have given them an incentive to exaggerate the role of Guzman, who pleaded not guilty after being extradited to the U.S. last year.
Much of Zambada’s testimony focused on bribery, one of his main duties as top lieutenant to the cartel-s top bosses – his older brother, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, and Guzman. Based in Mexico City, where he kept watch over tons of cocaine stashed in a warehouse, Jesus Zambada claimed he bought off federal and local police, prosecutors, airport officials and authorities in the city at a cost of about $300,000 a month in exchange for information and protections that kept the sprawling drug operation running smoothly.
He testified Guzman once dispatched him to the state of Guerrero in 20014 to give a military general there $100,000 in cash.
“He’s a friend of mine,” he recalled Guzman telling him. “Give him a hug and notify him that I’ll be working around the state.”
Zambada hadn’t yet met Guzman when the kingpin escaped from prison by hiding in a laundry bin in 2001 and on the run in the Mexican countryside. He testified his older brother, worried that a special military force was closing in on Guzman, arranged to have a helicopter extract him from the area and instructed his sibling to find a “semi-deserted location” in central Mexico where it could land.
When the helicopter touched down, the Zambadas were there to greet him. The older one and Guzman embraced before the younger one, along with his wife, whisked him away in the backseat of his car, he testified.
As they approached a toll booth on the nearly three-hour drive to Mexico City, Zambada recalled telling Guzman “to put a newspaper in front of his face because he was very wanted then.”
Later, at the sight of the Mexico City police approaching the car, Guzman looked troubled, he said, before he informed him he had arranged for the escort.
“Don’t worry about it,” he recalled telling Guzman. “These are our people. No one is going to touch us from here on out.”
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