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U.S. witness in 'El Chapo' trial tells of bribing former president of Mexico

A government witness testified that he told U.S. agents during debriefings that alleged drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera claimed to have paid a $100 million bribe for protection to former Mexican president Enrique Pena-Nieto.

Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera is shown in

Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera is shown in Mexico City Jan. 8, 2016. Photo Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Alfredo Estrella

A government witness at the Brooklyn federal court trial of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera said on Tuesday that he told government agents during debriefings that the drug kingpin claimed to have paid a $100 million bribe to former Mexican president Enrique Pena-Nieto for protection.

The testimony was elicited during cross-examination of one-time Colombian cocaine trafficker and Guzman aide Alex Cifuentes, who said he had been confused about the amounts and had no personal knowledge of the bribe, but told U.S. authorities in initial debriefings it was paid in October 2012.

“You claimed the president of Mexico had contacted Mr. Guzman?” said defense lawyer Jeffrey Lichtman. “And the message was Mr. Guzman didn’t have to stay in hiding?”

“That very thing is what Joaquin said to me,” Cifuentes answered.

Guzman, 58, has been on trial since November for allegedly running Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel and smuggling $14 billion in cocaine into the United States. Cifuentes is the 11th federal informant to testify. Lichtman said Tuesday that Guzman is on the defense witness list, keeping the door open if he decides to testify.

Defense lawyers have signaled since the start of trial that they would try to make high-level corruption an issue in the trial — asserting in opening statements that Guzman was unfairly targeted because of payoffs by rivals to two former Mexican presidents.

Pena-Nieto was elected in July 2012, took office in December 2012, and served until last year. Guzman, who twice escaped Mexican prisons, was apprehended for the last time while Pena-Nieto was in office and was extradited to the United States under his administration last year.

It was unclear why defense lawyers brought out testimony that their client allegedly paid bribes on cross-examination, but Lichtman may have been targeting discrepancies in Cifuentes' version of events to discredit other testimony describing Guzman’s alleged role in drug deals and ordering hits.

 Cifuentes acknowledged describing the bribe over a series of several debriefings beginning in 2016 — saying Guzman said Pena-Nieto asked for $250 million and he counter-offered $100 million  — before suddenly shifting at a meeting called by prosecutors just before trial and saying the numbers were “fuzzy.”

Lichtman said outside the presence of the jury the shift raised doubts about Cifuentes’ credibility. “He changed the story for a reason,” he said. 

Lichtman, reading notes of debriefings, also indicated that at one point Cifuentes claimed he saw pictures of suitcases stuffed with bribe money on an airplane belonging to Pena-Nieto’s political consultant sent by a Guzman operative who worked for the consultant.

Cifuentes said that wasn’t correct, and also begged off when Lichtman asked about an accusation he made in debriefings that a drug rival of Guzman had paid off another Mexican president, Felipe Calderon, for protection from Guzman.

“I don’t recall that incident very well,” Cifuentes answered. “ . . . I don’t remember if that was to President Calderon. I think it was the army.”

Nieto and Calderon have both denied taking bribes. Cifuentes will return to the stand on Wednesday. The length of the trial has been a moving target, but prosecutors said Tuesday they expected to rest their case by the end of next week.

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