Jorge Milton Cifuentes-Villa remembered being scared for his life the first time he met accused cocaine kingpin Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera in a mountainous area of Mexico in 2002.
Cifuentes-Villa wasn’t afraid that Guzmán, who had a reputation for being a brutal killer, was going to harm him.
Instead, it was the white-knuckle flight to the alleged drug kingpin's mountain hideout that frightened him, Cifuentes-Villa testified Tuesday in Brooklyn federal court in Guzmán's drug-trafficking trial.
Testifying as a government witness, Cifuentes-Villa said the landing strip — if one could call it that — was a patch of bare ground on the perilous incline of a mountain top.
“Horrible,” was how Cifuentes-Villa, 52, recalled the landing. “I got to pray three Hail Marys.”
The remark got laughs from some courtroom observers. But that may be the last humorous line Cifuentes-Villa delivers in his testimony. The convicted drug trafficker is expected to testify at length Wednesday about his years of dealing with Guzmán in what prosecutors contend was a massive cocaine-trafficking ring that smuggled hundreds of millions of dollars in narcotics into the United States.
In relatively brief testimony Tuesday, Cifuentes-Villa described his career in Mexico and Colombia as a drug dealer, which eventually put him in contact with Guzmán, the alleged former head of the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico.
Cifuentes-Villa is expected to be another in a parade of former drug dealers who have become cooperating witnesses against Guzmán, 58, long considered by authorities to be one of the most notorious traffickers in the world. Cifuentes-Villa is expected to authenticate audiotapes he recorded of Guzmán during the approximately six years they worked together.
Before Cifuentes-Villa took the stand, prosecutors introduced clips from YouTube videos depicting an interview with Guzmán done by an unidentified person, apparently somewhere in Mexico. During the brief segments, as Guzmán spoke, a rooster was heard in the background.
In the clips, Guzmán tells the interviewer he started harvesting and selling marijuana at age 15 because that was the only way he could earn a living.
“If there was no consumption, there would be no sale [of drugs],” said Guzmán, according to a transcript of the recording.
In earlier testimony Tuesday, a law enforcement official from Chicago testified about a 2002 cocaine seizure in which searches of a warehouse and two vans uncovered 1,929 kilos of cocaine. The drug haul, the largest in Chicago at the time, had a street value of $242 million, the official testified.
Federal prosecutors contend Guzmán ran a drug-trafficking network that brought in cocaine from Colombia and funneled it by plane and boat to Mexico, where it was smuggled to Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.
Cifuentes-Villa testified he got his start as a drug trafficker in earnest in about 1988, when he started helping a leader of the North Valley cartel smuggle cocaine. Cifuentes-Villa, a native of Colombia, said his job was to check out airstrips, make sure planes had fuel and ensure the smugglers “weren’t drunk.”
He said he eventually fled Mexico after one of his close associates was killed. But even in Colombia, where he returned to run legitimate businesses funded by his drug profits, Cifuentes-Villa said there were risks.
Cifuentes-Villa started selling arms to a paramilitary group, he said in court Tuesday. Members of the group tried to force him to keep supplying them weapons as they tried to take over cocaine cultivation areas, Cifuentes-Villa testified.
Afraid of retaliation from the group, Cifuentes-Villa, known as "El Penúltimo" because he was the second-youngest of nine children, said he fled again to Mexico in 2002. Once in Mexico, Cifuentes-Villa said, he decided to meet with Guzmán to re-enter the cocaine-smuggling business and get protection. Cifuentes-Villa said a friend arranged for him to take the 35-minute flight to Guzmán's mountain retreat.
Cifuentes-Villa is scheduled to continue his direct testimony Wednesday morning.