A former Sinaloa cartel manager responsible for smuggling 15 to 20 tons of cocaine into the New York area hidden in rail tanker cars rigged with secret compartments testified Monday in Brooklyn federal court that accused drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera claimed credit for the ingenious idea.
Tirso Martinez Sanchez, the fifth informant called by prosecutors to testify about the alleged $14 billion cocaine trafficking empire that Guzmán oversaw, said the accused drug lord’s claim came during a clandestine meeting in a cabin near Toluca, Mexico, shortly after he pulled off his first escape from prison.
A year earlier, Martinez had inherited responsibility for the cartel’s rail-trafficking operation that hid thousands of kilos of cocaine in secret compartments welded at either end of tankers shipping vegetable oil, and moved the tankers for unloading into private warehouses on rail spurs in the U.S.
“I was the inventor of that route,” Guzmán told Martinez at the 2001 meeting after he was taken to see the boss while wearing a hood in the back of a cargo van so he couldn’t identify the location.
Guzmán, 58, extradited from Mexico last year, went on trial Nov. 13. His trial, expected to last four months, began Nov. 13. He is charged with running a continuing criminal enterprise, cocaine and firearms trafficking.
Previous informants testifying have included Rey Zambada, the brother of Guzmán’s alleged cartel co-leader, Mayo Zambada, and a Colombian known as “Chupeta,” who said he was Guzmán’s chief supplier, providing vivid glimpses inside the operation of a criminal organization that was allegedly a key component of the drug epidemic that spilled onto U.S. streets for two decades.
Martinez said the rail cars were used for 18 to 20 shipments to Chicago, Los Angeles and New York between 2000 and 2003. Each load averaged 1,400 to 1,700 kilos, totaling 30 to 50 tons to all three cities worth between $500 million and $800 million, and the route was viewed by the cartel as “very safe.”
His profit, Martinez said, was $25 million to $30 million, much of it routed back to Mexico in the form of watches and diamond jewelry bought in Manhattan, or cash concealed in vehicles. He left school at 13 and couldn’t read, he said, but owned soccer teams and lost as much as $3 million betting on cockfights.
But Martinez, known in the cartel as “El Mechanico” and “El Futbolista,” said his share of the take was only 10 to 15 percent of the profits of Guzmán and the other bosses, and it was a job that came with special pressure
Occasionally, Martinez said, he was caught in the middle when Guzmán told him directly to ship his drugs, getting him in trouble with his direct supervisor, cartel leader Vicente Carrillo. And misunderstandings could be serious, Martinez said. Zambada, Martinez testified, once pointed a gun at his face when he became convinced one of his drug shipments was replaced with lower-quality cocaine.
The end came suddenly. In 2002, authorities in Brooklyn and Chicago raided warehouses where the cocaine had been moved from the train. Then, in 2003, a raid was conducted at a rail spur warehouse in Queens, with cocaine and the evidence of the secret compartment sitting in the tanker car.
The losses totaled $100 million. Guzmán, he was told, wanted him to come up with a new approach, using a new company shipping merchandise in boxcars with secret compartments instead of tankers. But Martinez said he believed his number was up and his life was at risk.
He quit in 2003, a few months after the last raid, he said.
“I didn’t want to keep working with them,” Martinez testified. “It was too much pressure.”
Testimony resumes on Tuesday.