Since early November, federal prosecutors have been doing their best to prove to a jury that Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera is guilty of running a decades-long, multibillion-dollar conspiracy to traffick and distribute narcotics across North America.
Over the course of two months, the government has brought forward witness after witness to describe how they worked with Guzmán to bring drugs to the United States by plane, train, and automobile (along with boats, submarines, tunnels, and hidden in pepper cans). The parade of cooperating witnesses has included a confessed mass murderer who disfigured himself to evade capture, a former drug lord who spent more than a decade snorting up to four grams of cocaine a day, and a trafficker who once had so much cash lying around that he bought a soccer team
To help readers keep track of what’s happened so far as the trial resumes after a holiday break, here is a roundup the important players.
The Alleged Kingpin
Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera
Captured in 2016 and extradited to the United States in 2017
Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, 61, is the star of the show. Born in a rural community in the Mexican state of Sinaloa called La Tuna, Guzmán got his start as a hired gun for the Guadalajara Cartel, Mexico’s first major, unified drug-trafficking organization, before branching out on his own.
Guzmán first became widely known in 1993, after a shootout between him and the henchmen of rival drug lords left a Mexican archbishop dead, and he was captured several months later. He escaped prison in 2001, fleeing to his stronghold in a mountainous region between Sinaloa and Durango known as the Golden Triangle, and for the next 13 years he continued to run the show, according to prosecutors. He was captured once more in 2014, after a joint task force of multiple U.S. agencies working with Mexican marines tracked him down in the city of Mazatlán, but in 2015 he once again managed to escape prison, this time remaining free for less than a year. He was finally extradited to the United States in early 2017, and now faces a 17-count indictment that could put him behind bars for life.
In testimony from cooperating witnesses, a portrait has emerged of a touchy, controlling man unafraid to use violence to enforce his will. According to one witness, Guzmán once had a rival drug lord killed for refusing to shake his hand, and in court documents prosecutors have accused him of having a role in hundreds of deaths, and have said they would prove to jurors that he personally ordered more than 30 murders in his time.
Contrary to the legend surrounding him and to the case being made by prosecutors, his defense team says El Chapo is being set up, a victim of corrupt drug warriors looking to put an easy face on the drug trade. So far they have attacked the credibility of the witnesses, and tried whenever possible to highlight corruption at the heart of the Mexican state.
The At-Large Associate
Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García
Still at large. Rumored to be the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel
Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada is reputedly the current leader of the Sinalo Cartel, and for decades worked closely with El Chapo, even as other alliances with the cartel broke down in greed and bloodshed. Like Guzmán, he was born in Sinaloa and is believed to have gotten his start working under Miguel Ángel Felix Gallardo, the godfather of modern Mexican drug trafficking. Gallardo’s cartel, known as The Federation, was a precursor to the Sinaloa Cartel and its allies-turned-rivals, the Juarez and Tijuana cartels.
El Mayo has featured extensively at the trial, largely thanks to the defense team, which from the beginning has attempted to position Zambada as the true kingpin of the Sinaloa Cartel. In his opening arguments, defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman repeated his name like an incantation, and painted a picture of a man so powerful, so skilled at bribery, that the Mexican government would leave him untouched and the federal government of the United States would ignore him in favor of Guzmán. “The U.S. government pretends to want [Zambada]…. But somehow they still can’t seem to develop the information required to lead to his arrest,” he said on November 13th. “The bottom line is that the world is focusing on this mythical El Chapo figure. The world is not focusing on Mayo Zambada, to allow him to remain free and in business.”
Zambada certainly has an extensive bribery network in place to ensure smooth operations, but so did Guzmán. The explanation for Guzmán’s incarceration and Zambada’s freedom is likely a bit more prosaic: While El Chapo appeared to revel in his notoriety, Zambada has always kept a lower profile, according to Derek Maltz, who was agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s special operations division at the time of El Chapo’s arrest in the Mexican beach resort city of Mazatlán in 2014.
“Chapo was way more the face of the Sinaloa Cartel,” Maltz tells Rolling Stone. “El Mayo is a little bit older, and wiser, and much more professional in the way he’s dealt with his role as a leader. He sat in the background and made his billions in a different way, but to say that [Zambada] was the sole head during that period? No, it was a business partnership.”
If the different fates of Zambada and Guzmán are in fact the result of high-level corruption among Mexican and American officials, it’s unlikely to come out much at El Chapo’s trial. Judge Brian M. Cogan, who is presiding over the trial, has kept much of the proceedings under strict secrecy, moving to block many subjects and lines of questioning from reaching the ears of the jury in the name of streamlining the trial and keeping it focused on the alleged crimes of Guzmán.
While El Mayo remains free, several members of his family are in United States custody. His brother, Jesus Reynaldo Zambada, was the first cooperating witness to testify at Guzmán’s trial, and his son, Vicente Zambada Nieble, is expected to take the stand as well.
The Sinaloa Cartel
The Sinaloa Cartel was born from the ashes of the Federation, a network of Mexican drug smugglers led by Miguel Ángel Felíx Gallardo, AKA El Padrino, until 1989. Gallardo revolutionized the Mexican drug trade by unifying many independent traffickers under one umbrella in an effort to standardize prices and reduce the kind of fighting that naturally arises from — and is harmful to — drug trafficking.
When Gallardo was captured by Mexican police in 1989, the Federation began to fracture, as onetime allies jockeyed for power and quarreled over trafficking routes. The faction of the cartel run by Guzmán and El Mayo became what is now known as the Sinaloa Cartel, while factions based in Tijuana and Juarez, initially allied with Sinaloa, gradually broke off to become their own organizations. Over time, these groups became increasingly hostile to one another and competition for territory — and bloodshed over petty slights and different methods — grew more fierce.
Named for the Mexican state from which most of its leaders hail, the Sinaloa Cartel is reputed to be one of the most prolific drug-trafficking organizations of all time. From the late 1980s onward, Guzmán and his associates are accused of smuggling thousands of tons of cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana and heroin into the United States
Jesús Reynaldo “El Rey” Zambada García
Pleaded guilty to drug trafficking. Awaiting sentencing.
Testified November 14th-20th
Jesús Reynaldo Zambada García, nicknamed “El Rey,” or The King, is a brother of El Mayo, and was tasked with running his brother’s operations in Mexico City, managing warehouses, overseeing importation of cocaine from Colombia, doling out bribes to Mexican officials, and keeping the books for the cartel as its accountant.
Zambada, 57, said he worked for his brother from 1987 until his arrest in 2008, and claims to have worked as a “subleader” in the cartel, coordinating closely with Guzmán. His testimony shed light on the deterioration in relations between Guzmán and his former allies in the Tijuana and Juarez cartels, and on El Chapo’s willingness to use brutal violence. In once instance, he told jurors, Guzmán was so offended when a leader of the Juarez Cartel refused to shake his hand following an attempted reconciliation meeting that Guzmán had his sicarios gun down the man and his wife outside a movie theater.
But the most explosive information came out in the final minutes of Zambada’s testimony on November 20th, when he told jurors he had personally delivered millions of dollars in bribes to the security chief of former Mexican President Felipe Calderón, along with a top aide to Mexico’s current president Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office December 1st.
Miguel Ángel Martínez Martínez
Pleaded guilty to drug trafficking, served six years in prison. Currently in witness protection.
Testified November 26th-28th
Of the witnesses who have testified so far, Miguel Angel Martinez, known as “El Gordo,” who said he began working directly with El Chapo in 1987, is perhaps the closest to Guzmán.
Martinez was born in the state of Guanajuato, and after taking flight lessons in the United States, he began smuggling electronics by air into Mexico, a vocation that gave him an intimate knowledge of the country’s clandestine flight strips and a good in with the Sinaloa Cartel.
He was there in good times — including jaunts to Macau and Las Vegas — and bad. Martinez said he was there with Guzmán as they built a scrappy crew of about 25 people into what prosecutors say is one of the most prolific drug-trafficking organizations of all time.
The one-time pilot described how the cartel moved tons of cocaine through a tunnel between Aguas Prieta, Mexico and Douglas, Arizona, before moving on to placing it in fake pepper cans and shipping it north in trucks.
He also copped to a staggering cocaine addiction, sometimes snorting as much as four grams a day, a quantity that El Chapo’s defense team seized on in a bid to make him seem unreliable to jurors, at one point dumping out a packet of Splenda to give jurors an idea of the size of a gram of powder.
Martinez said he continued to look after Guzmán’s family even after El Chapo’s first arrest in 1993, but when Martinez himself was busted in 1998, their relationship quickly soured. Afraid that Martinez might talk, El Gordo said Guzmán tried three times to have him killed. Twice, Martinez said, he was brutally stabbed him in prison. The third time, after a band stood outside the prison ominously playing one of Guzmán’s favorite songs for eight hours straight, two men tossed a hand grenade into Martinez’s cell, but he survived by ducking behind a toilet.
Martinez was released into the witness protection program in 2007. Like the other people cooperating against his former boss, he has every reason to fear retaliation, so to protect his identity, Judge Cogan barred the courtroom sketch artists from rendering his image with any recognizable features. Still, Martinez said that given the previous attempts on his life, it scared him to come face to face with Guzmán all these years later.
“When I was fighting my extradition, I never mentioned him,” he said. “I never failed him, I never stole from him, I never betrayed him. I watched over his family. And the only thing I ever received from him was four attempted attacks against me without saying anything.”
Juan Carlos “Chupeta” Abadía
Pleaded guilty to drug trafficking. Awaiting sentencing.
Testified November 28th-December 4th
Juan Carlos Ramírez Abadía, known as “Cupeta,” or Lollypop, is a Colombian drug trafficker and a former leader of the North Valley Cartel, which became the most powerful cartel in the country after the demise of the Medellín and Cali cartels.
Ramírez, 57, rose through the ranks of Colombian drug trafficking in the 1980s, in part thanks to his meticulous organizational skills and in part thanks to his utter ruthlessness. This guy has a bodycount: according to Chupeta, he has ordered the deaths of 150 people, and personally executed one person by shooting them in the face. In one particularly grisly incident, he described luring a cartel rival to one of his properties, where Chupeta and his men butchered the rival and his security detail in a hail of gunfire. When they were done, they drove to a gas station down the road where the rival’s backup squad was waiting and murdered them as well.
In addition to being willing to spill blood, Chupeta also scrupulously kept track of the cocaine shipments he sent to to El Chapo, and in court he painstakingly detailed his digital ledgers, which included information on the cost of fuel, the amount of cocaine being shipped, repairs to boats, and what he said was money allotted for contract killings.
According to Ramírez, he worked for nearly two decades with El Chapo, who he gave 40 percent of every cocaine shipment in exchange for Guzmán’s swift smuggling routes and pull with the Mexican authorities on the Sinaloa Cartel’s payroll.
Ramírez — who due to a medical issue showed up to court wearing a puffy jacket and gloves — is also disfigured, thanks to a series of botched plastic surgeries that he got to change his appearance while on the lam.
German “El Barbas” Rosero
Pleaded guilty to drug trafficking. Awaiting sentencing
Testified December 4th-5th
German Rosero, nicknamed “El Barbas,” or The Beard, worked as a liaison between Chupeta’s North Valley Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel, from 1998 to 2006, overseeing cocaine shipments and, according to him, “making sure the Mexicans weren’t drunk.”
Unlike El Chapo and many of his cohorts, Rosero was not a narco lifer. Until the early 1990s, he worked as a public defender in Bogotá, Colombia, but in 1991, after someone threatened his life, Rosero needed protection. He turned to an old college classmate who also happened to be a high-ranking member of the North Valley Cartel and a close associate of Chupeta, and began doing legal work for the cartel, purchasing properties, and helping out people who had been arrested. Over time he began to take a more active role in smuggling, and began a key figure in making sure Colombian coke got into Mexican hands and, eventually, American bloodstreams.
Rosero said he got sick of the dangers of the job, and in 2008 he voluntarily surrendered to American authorities.
Tirso “El Futbolista” Martinez Sanchez
Pleaded guilty to drug trafficking. Awaiting sentencing
Testified December 10th
Tirso Martinez Sanchez, known as “El Futbolista,” is a former drug lord who operated a sophisticated smuggling network in the United States that included shipping cocaine on freight trains to Chicago and New York.
Martinez described how he grew up dirt-poor with 12 siblings and an alcoholic father in Guadalajara, Mexico, and hustled from a young age, selling fruit on the street, washing cars, and working at a seafood stand. When he was 18, he moved to Los Angeles, where he got his start in the drug trade flipping grams of cocaine on the street, before moving on to whiter pastures and moving hundreds of kilos of cocaine in cargo trucks.
Despite eventually moving back to Mexico for good when L.A. got too hot, Martínez continued to oversee smuggling of cocaine to warehouses in Chicago and New York, graduating from trucks to freight trains in 1997, he told jurors.
Martinez ran the train routes for about six years, and for a while he lived large — he estimated he made $15 or $20 million working for the Sinaloa Cartel — and invested some of his money in soccer teams in Mexico. But in 2002 and 2003, after cops raided his warehouses in New York and Chicago three times, confiscating about $100 million worth of cocaine, he got nervous and ghosted on his former bosses, he said.
El Futbolista was finally arrested in 2014, and extradited to the United States, where he pleaded guilty to charges of drug trafficking and money laundering.
Jorge Milton Cifuentes Villa
Pleaded guilty to drug trafficking and money laundering
Testified December 11th-13th and December 17th
Jorge Cifuentes, 52, was born in Medellín, Colómbia, and grew up in a family of drug traffickers, telling jurors that he started making cocaine “from a young age.”
By the mid-1990s, he was living in Texas and he and a partner were making millions of dollars smuggling cocaine into the country, working with both the North Valley Cartel and El Mayo of the Sinaloa Cartel. In 1998, his partner, a man nicknamed “Roba Chivas” or “The Goat Thief,” was murdered by El Mayo, but that didn’t stop Cifuentes from continuing to work with Sinaloa, and he soon began working closely with El Chapo to coordinate shipments of cocaine from Colómbia, through Ecuador, and on to Mexico.
Things went fairly smoothly for Cifuentes for years, but in late 2008 and early 2009 — thanks, he said, to pressure from Guzmán to move cocaine without taking enough precautions — two consecutive six-ton loads of cocaine were seized, first in international waters and then at warehouses in Ecuador.
In addition to his business smuggling cocaine, Cifuentes had investments in cattle, mining, fuel distribution and reforesting businesses, as well as a scheme to create carbon-credits in the Amazon that he would award to his own companies. After the disastrous series of cocaine seizures, Cifuentes said, “I didn’t want to know anymore about drug trafficking with Don Joaquín.” Unlike cocaine smuggling, however, few of his other ventures were profitable. In 2012, police in Venezuela caught up with him, and he was extradited to the United States in 2013.
Pedro and Margarito Flores
Sentenced to 14 years for drug trafficking
Pedro Flores testified Dec. 17-19.
Pedro and Margarito Flores are identical twin brothers from Chicago who began working in the drug trade with their father from a young age. By the early 2000s, they had established themselves as some of the biggest wholesale drug distributors in Chicago, and in 2005, they linked up with El Chapo and the Sinaloa Cartel, moving their headquarters to Mexico but still cornering much of the market in Chicago from afar.
From 2005 until 2008, they became some of the most reliable distributors under Guzmán’s umbrella, moving an average of 1,000-1,500 kilos of cocaine through their Chicago hub per month, according to court documents. But in 2008, the brothers and their families began to get spooked, especially as a war began to flare up between Guzmán and a rival cartel faction, a war that put the Flores brothers in the crossfire. So that year, Pedro Flores told jurors, he approached the DEA and offered to help them make a case against Guzmán, recording phone calls with Guzmán and his lieutenants and tipping authorities off to several major cocaine and heroin shipments.
In November of 2008, the brothers turned themselves in to American authorities and moved their families back to the United States. But they soon paid a heavy price for their cooperation: in early 2009, their father returned to Mexico to take care of some business, and within days he had been disappeared, with a note left on his car making it clear his abduction was retaliation for the brothers’ betrayal of the cartel.
The Flores twins were sentenced in 2015 to just 14 years in prison, a reward for the information they provided that has so far put dozens of their former associates behind bars.