El Chapo Trial: Former Top Lieutenant Details Cartel Boss’s Downfall
In two days of questioning by the prosecution, Miguel Ángel Martínez Martínez described how Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán went from a child in abject poverty, to an underling in the Guadalajara Cartel — ran by “El Padrino” Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo — to the boss of the Sinaloa Cartel. His testimony described an ambitious man who started with little but a knack for smuggling, and ended up ferrying millions of dollars in cash in his four private jets each months by coming up with increasingly ingenious methods for transporting drugs.
But Martínez also catalogued El Chapo’s missteps, including a disastrous war with the rival Tijuana Cartel, run by his erstwhile allies the Arellano Félix brothers, which nearly put Guzmán out of commission for good.
In a trial that will likely feature many blockbuster witnesses, Martínez stands out for his closeness to El Chapo during Guzmán’s rise to power. According to his testimony so far, he was there at a number of early moments when Guzmán and his top assistants were revolutionizing cocaine smuggling through the use of tunnels, planes and trains to ferry Colombian cocaine to its ravenous North American customers.
Martínez, who has been in the witness protection program since his release from prison in 2007, appeared in court Monday under security that was strict even for this intensely locked-down trial. While he showed his face in open court, courtroom sketch artists were barred from rendering his likeness.
Martínez was born in the central Mexican town of Celaya, in the state of Guanajuato. He lived for a time in the United States, where he trained to be a pilot, immediately parlaying that skill into a job smuggling electronics into Mexico. As he told jurors on Monday, his knowledge of clandestine landing strips hidden in the deserts of northern Mexico brought him into the orbit of drug smugglers, and when a contact told him to go to Mexico City for a meeting, he went. There, he met Guzmán and began a long, loyal and lucrative relationship with the future cartel boss, who at the time was starting to build out his own organization under the umbrella of the Guadalajara Cartel.
After an initially bumpy start, Martínez began helping El Chapo corner the American market for Colombian coke. El Chapo proved himself to be a skilled smuggler, moving cocaine from its arrival point in Mexico up to Los Angeles in just 24 hours, earning him the nickname “El Rapido,” Martínez told jurors.
Beginnning in 1987, his primary route of moving the drugs across the border was through a tunnel between Agua Prieta in northern Mexico, and Douglas, Arizona, just across the border.
In a building on the Mexico side, the tunnel was hidden by a floor that could be lifted by a hydraulic system, and was further obscured by a billiards table. Through that trap door, El Chapo’s organization moved between 25 and 30 tons of cocaine per year from 1987 until 1990, when a careless mistake by one of his lieutenants brought it to an abrupt halt, Martínez said.
One day in the spring of 1990, cartel honcho Francisco Camarena left the hydraulic floor and the pool table aloft, which caught the eye of a passing Mexican police officer. An ensuing investigation unearthed the tunnel. Guzmán was not pleased.
“He was very worried and upset,” Martínez told the court.
The cartel was stuck with “six or seven” tons of cocaine and no reliable way to get it north, Martínez said. They put it on trucks and shipped it to Nogales, another town in northern Mexico, but the delay in getting it across the border turned “El Rapido” into “El Lento,” or the slow one, Martínez said.
“That’s when we came up with the peppers,” Martínez told jurors.
Martínez, Guzmán, and other associates zeroed in on an idea to smuggle cocaine in jalapeño cans. The initial plan was to buy a cannery, but the group decided instead just to clone the labels and packaging of a brand of chili peppers by the name of “La Comadre,” or Midwife, since that company already had the FDA approvals necessary for importation.
The gang bought some used machinery in the U.S., Martínez said, and before long they had a seamless operation shoving kilos of coke into each can and moving it north by truck. Over the next three years, it became as efficient as the Agua Prieta tunnel had been, with 25 to 30 tons of cocaine being shipped this way each year, according to Martínez.
As the operation continued, El Chapo built up his empire. He acquired four jets, and at least 100 on-call hitmen, traveling everywhere in Mexico with an entourage of 25 pistoleros and jetting around the globe under an assumed name. He travelled to Asia to try to broker a heroin connection, and to Switzerland to receive a cellular treatment to “keep young,” according to his former lieutenant.
“He had houses at every beach,” Martínez said. “He had ranches in every single state.”
Guzmán commanded a fleet of Learjets, which in the early 1990s were flying each month to Tijuana to pick up cash, carrying $8 million to $10 million apiece back to Mexico City, where Martínez stored it in stash houses before carrying it to banks in overstuffed Samsonite briefcases. Bank employees occasionally asked questions about the source, but Martínez had a cover.
“I said I was exporting tomatoes,” Martínez told jurors.
As for the cash that was too plentiful to be deposited? Guzmán had an architect on staff who, in addition to planning cross-border tunnels, worked up a network of hydraulic compartments in safe houses across Mexico, where the cartel hid cash in compartments submerged in water or tucked under bed frames, Martínez told jurors.
As the cartel grew, so did its expenses, and by the early 1990s, Chapo was shelling out up to $10 million a month to pay for his small army of sicarios, operational expenses and to support his growing family, which had grown to include four wives, countless girlfriends, and a brood of children, Martínez said. He kept a ranch in Guadalajara with pools, tennis courts, and a zoo stocked with lions, tigers and panthers, that visitors could traverse in a miniature train. He had a yacht named “Chapito.”
El Chapo had a generous streak. He gave out diamond-encrusted rolexes to his underlings, and each year he asked Martínez to dole out luxury cars to his employees the way some bosses give out gift cards. In exchange for coordinating a dizzying array of logistics for the boss, Martínez pulled in a million dollars a year, he said.
Those were the good years, drinking rivers of whiskey, beer and cognac, traveling to Europe for vacation, and gambling in Macau.
“It was the best time in the world,” he told jurors. “We helped form the cocaine boom.”
But even as Chapo was becoming what prosecutors describe as one of the most successful drug traffickers on earth, he was getting bogged down in what Martínez described as a hyper-violent and ultimately counterproductive war with the Arellano Félix brothers, former allies who ran the Tijuana Cartel.
What began as a rivalry for smuggling routes became bloody in the late 1980s, when the Arellano Félix brothers allegedly murdered several close friends and associates of Guzmán, and butchered the family of another, according to Martínez.
In response, Guzmán sought and received permission from Juan José Esparragoza Moreno, a veritable elder statesman of cartel land, to retaliate against the Arellano brothers. Over the ensuing years, he sank more and more resources into the war, which claimed dozens of lives and brought unwanted attention to both organizations, Martínez said.
“The war completely harmed our interests,” said Martínez, who claimed to have never had a direct hand in the violence. “When they started with that war, everybody became famous.”
The beginning of the end came in November of 1992, when El Chapo learned from the son of an associate that the Arellano Félix brothers were partying at Discoteca Christine, a posh nightclub in Puerto Vallarta. Guzmán immediately contacted Martínez and had him arrange a flight to nearby Guadalajara, where he rounded up about two dozen sicarios, bundled them into a truck, and drove to Puerto Vallarta.
It was a critical blunder. The Arellano Félix brothers got word that Guzmán and his gunmen were coming, and they were prepared. When the truck arrived at the disco, the Arellano boys and their henchmen opened fire, resulting in a bloodbath that claimed the lives of several of Guzmán’s men, along with several bystanders. In total, the gunfight left six dead and left the dueling organizations further entrenched in war, Martínez said.
The flashpoint that solidified Guzmán’s infamy was a shootout at the Guadalajara airport on May 23rd, 1993, which claimed the life of the beloved Cardinal Juan Jesús Posada Ocampo.
In a dramatic back-and-forth with the prosecution, Martínez told the court how Tijuana gunmen laid in wait for El Chapo, and opened fire on him as his car pulled up. One of Guzmán’s bodyguards, a man known as “El Tigre” helped the boss out of his car and ran into the terminal with him, holding a suitcase stuffed with $600,000 in cash, Martínez said. The pair dashed onto a luggage belt and ran across the tarmac to a local highway on the other side of the airport, Martínez said.
The cardinal wasn’t so lucky. Posada was traveling in a white Grand Marquis, similar to a car Guzmán had recently bought for one of his wives, and in the confusion, he was fatally gunned down.
In the wake of the Guadalajara airport shootout, the relative anonymity Guzmán had enjoyed was over, Martínez said.
“They were showing his picture on the news every five or 10 minutes,” he said
Guzmán was desperate. With the entire nation looking for him, and his political capital largely spent, he needed Martínez to turn some of the cocaine they had on hand into cash, Martínez told jurors.
Normally, when a truck loaded with chili-can coke headed for the border in Tijuana, it would carry between 2,000 and 3,200 kilos of cocaine, mixed in with real peppers to throw off anyone who might give the truck a second glance. But all of this bad news made Guzmán “desperate,” according to Martínez, and that made him take risks. When a new shipment of more than 10 tons of cocaine came in from Colombia, a frantic Chapo demanded that Martínez load it down with two shipments in one. Martínez said he told his boss it was a bad idea, but went ahead and tossed seven tons of cocaine unto one truck.
The coke didn’t make it. Mexican police stopped the truck in Tecate, a town near Tijuana, and seized the whole load — and with it, a carefully constructed method of smuggling cocaine across the border, Martínez said. “Fuck it, compadre, that route is finished,” Guzmán told Martínez.
Following El Chapo’s arrest in June of 1993, Martinez said he continued to work with the cartel for about five more years, coordinating payments to Guzmán’s family and running day-to-day smuggling operations for an associate of Guzmán who remained free. In 1998, Martinez was finally arrested by Mexican police, and spent a harrowing three years in Mexican prisons, where he survived four assassination attempts, which he suspected came from the cartel. Despite the attempts on his life, he said he resisted attempts by the United States to extradite him.
“I fought extradition like a cat with its belly up,” he said.
Finally, in 2001, MArtinez was extradited to the United States, where, in exchange for his full cooperation, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison, which a judge later reduced to just six years. Martinez was released from prison in 2007, and has been living in witness protection ever since, had has testified several times in trials and grand juries.
When he received a subpoena to testify against El Chapo, however, he said he was not happy to drop a dime on his former boss.
“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.”
By the time court broke for lunch Wednesday, prosecutor Michael Robotti was still questioning Martinez about the terms of his cooperation agreement with the government, with cross-examination set to start Wednesday afternoon.
In its opening arguments, the defense team highlighted what it described as the untrustworthy nature of the government’s witnesses, and is likely to question Martinez about his claims to have never taken part in violence, and to hone in on his admitted drug use during the years about which he has testified.
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