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Sinaloa drug cartel operative testifies at 'El Chapo' trial

In this undated photo provided by the U.S.

In this undated photo provided by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York, Jesus Zambada is shown.  Credit: AP

The Sinaloa cartel’s reach into Mexican law enforcement was so deep that it arranged for a police escort for Joaquín “El   Chapo” Guzmán Loera into Mexico City when he was on the run after his first prison escape in 2001, according to testimony Thursday at the accused cocaine kingpin’s trial in Brooklyn federal court.

During a day of riveting disclosures, informant Jesus “Rey” Zambada Garcia, a former top cartel operative, described how he and his brother, cartel leader Ismail “Mayo” Zambada Garcia, had a helicopter pluck Guzmán away from a military search, and then drove him north three hours to his top sicario’s ranch near Mexico City to hide out.

When they approached a toll booth outside the city, Zambada said, he advised Guzman to put a newspaper in front of his face to hide from the camera. But near Mexico City, by prearrangement a police motorcycle pulled in front of their car and a cruiser started following them.

“He had the natural reaction. He got worried,” Zambada explained. “But I said don’t worry. They’re going to protect us. Nobody’s going to touch us from here on out.”

That testimony highlighted a day in which the government witness also described smuggling tricks and doling out $300,000 a month in bribes, detailed Guzmán’s links to a notorious disco massacre and the killing of a Catholic cardinal, and quoted Guzmán saying his “greatest pleasure” had been the shooting of a rival hit man.

In drug wars, Zambada told jurors, “They always end up with deaths. There are always a lot of deaths.”

A mythical drug-trafficking figure who twice escaped from prisons, Guzmán, 58, was extradited last year and faces charges that he used murder and violence over a quarter century to smuggle $14 billion of cocaine into the United States, along with quantities of heroin, marijuana and methamphetamines.

Sixteen informants are expected to testify. Zambada, the first, has pleaded guilty to trafficking and admitted three murder conspiracies, but denied personally committing murders as part of the cartel from 1987 until his 2008 capture. Escorted past a staring Guzmán after his second day on the stand Thursday, he responded with a glance and a timid smile.

Zambada was brought into the cartel by his brother to use his accounting degree to create a system of tracking U.S. customers, but said he eventually became the cartel’s chief agent in Mexico City where he ran warehouses used to store tons of cocaine and became the paymaster for the national capital.

On orders of his brother and Guzmán, he said, he paid the estimated $300,000 a month in bribes to federal police, judicial police, municipal police, and the Attorney General’s office, known as the “PGR,” as well as airport officials, generals and even Interpol.

“He would say, ‘Give half a million dollars to the attorney who was going to give it to the director of the PGR,' ” Zambada recalled. “Give another $500,000 to a general. They did it using lawyers, but I was the one who gave out the money in Mexico City.”

Leaders of the cartel like his brother Mayo and Guzmán, Zambada said, invested millions in Colombian cocaine shipments, and then moved it through Mexico and across the border through a system of hidden tunnels, or in big trucks with hidden tanks, but had a special trick during major U.S. border mobilizations.

Instead of trucks, smugglers switched to small loads stashed in pickups and cars. “It’s much harder for the authorities to detect them because on the same day thousands of vehicles are crossing,” he said. “ . . . If you lose one you’ve lost 20 kilos. That’s not a lot. . . . It’s the ‘ant-speed’ operation’ to cross the drugs.”

Defense lawyers contend Guzmán is not the kingpin prosecutors claim, but instead a fall-guy for Zambada’s brother Mayo, still at large. On Thursday, Zambada portrayed them as equal partners with a few other leaders, but also described Guzmán’s role in two violent incidents in the early 1990s that raised his profile.

Both came in a war over Tijuana border crossings with a rival gang, the Arellano Félix organization. In one, Zambada’s brother told him afterward, Guzmán tried to kill Ramon Arellano, a rival sicario who had killed Sinaloa loyalists, at Christine’s, a crowded disco in Puerto Vallarta. The target escaped, but six gunmen and bystanders died in a shootout.

The next year, a Catholic cardinal was murdered at the Guadalajara airport. Law enforcement blamed Guzmán, but Zambada said he was told Ramon Arellano and gunmen from the rival gang had lain in wait to assassinate Guzmán, but by mistake a Catholic cardinal arriving in an identical car was killed.

“He started to be a very wanted man,” Zambada testified, and was soon captured and imprisoned until 2001 when Guzmán’s escape in a laundry cart led to the helicopter rescue and police escort, and several days at the hideout where he plotted a return to the cocaine trade.

A year later, Ramon Arellano was killed in a police shootout in Mazatláan. Zambada testified that his brother told him Guzmán had located him there, “had him stopped by the police,” and when he ran for it “they put a bullet in his neck and he fell down dead.”

In 2005, Zambada testified, the death came up in a conversation, and Guzmán said “if anything had really given him  pleasure, it was to have killed Ramon Arellano.”

The trial resumes on Monday.

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