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Star 'El Chapo' informant testifies to million-dollar bribes to top officials

Witness Jesus "Rey" Zambada Garcia tells of corruption at the highest levels of Mexico's government in explosive testimony Tuesday, including to a top aide to Mexican president-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

In courtroom sketch from November, Joaquín "El Chapo"

In courtroom sketch from November, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera, center, is depicted in federal court in Brooklyn. Photo Credit: AP/Elizabeth Williams

A star informant in the cocaine trafficking trial of Joaquin "El Chapo” Guzman Loera detailed corruption at the highest levels of Mexico’s government in explosive testimony Tuesday about million-dollar bribes a decade ago to officials including a top aide to Mexican president-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Witness Jesus “Rey” Zambada Garcia, a former upper-level operative in the Sinaloa Cartel that Guzman allegedly helped lead, told Brooklyn federal court jurors he delivered “a few million dollars” in 2005 to a ranking Mexico City public security official in the mayoral administration of Obrador, now president-elect.

Later, Zambada said he delivered two briefcases with at least $3 million each as protection money to Genaro Garcia Luna, Mexico’s incoming federal cabinet secretary of public security, between 2005 and 2007, on behalf of his brother Ismail “Mayo” Zambada Garcia, who allegedly helped run the cartel with Guzman.

“He was assuring your brother that he would not interfere with your brother’s narco trafficking?” a lawyer for Guzman asked on cross-examination.

“Correct,” answered Zambada, the first of more than a dozen informants expected to testify.

Guzman, 58, a near-mythical figure in the drug world who twice escaped Mexican prisons, was extradited last year and is charged with using violence and intimidation to smuggle $14 billion of cocaine into the United States over 25 years. The trial began a week ago and is projected to last four months.

Defense lawyers argued in opening statements that Guzman was set up by “Mayo” Zambada, who they said was the real kingpin but had remained free and turned “El Chapo” into a cocaine poster-child and a prime U.S. target through high-level connections, including bribes paid to two Mexican presidents.

They told U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan last week they expected “Rey” Zambada to support that claim based on statements when he was debriefed by U.S. agents, but Cogan called the defense a distraction. On Tuesday Cogan granted prosecutors’ sealed motion to limit defense questions, and the witness wasn’t asked to implicate Obrador or any predecessors.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and former President Felipe Calderon last week denied taking any bribes from drug traffickers. Gabriel Regino, the former Obrador aide identified by Zambada, denied Tuesday getting a bribe on Twitter. Garcia Luna did not comment.

Over four days of testimony, “Rey” Zambada identified himself as the Sinaloa cartel’s top operative in Mexico City, implicated both his brother and Guzman in a long series of multi-ton cocaine deals and murder conspiracies, and told prosecutors he doled out $300,000 a month in bribes to various officials.

But he didn’t mention the million-dollar payoffs on his brother’s behalf until asked by the defense. The first, in 2005, came when Obrador aide Regino was considered a strong candidate for the cabinet of incoming president Calderon. Zambada said “it was a few million” paid “for our protection.” Cogan cut off questions about the relationship between Obrador and Regino.

Garcia Luna, Zambada said, got the cabinet job, and he acknowledged telling agents he paid $3 million in a briefcase at a restaurant to ensure a friendly police chief in the Sinaloa capital. Asked about another payment of $3 million to $5 million in 2007, Zambada answered, “Yes there was money.”

“When it came to political corruption on behalf of Mayo … you would want to corrupt as high as you could?” defense lawyer William Purpura asked at one point. “ . . . If Mayo could corrupt the president of Mexico he’d do it, wouldn’t he?”

“Perhaps,” answered Zambada, who finished testifying Tuesday afternoon.

The trial resumes on Monday.

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