El Chapo was naked.
Taking off like a bullet down the pitch-black tunnel, he left his girlfriend, his faithful bodyguard and his maid in the dust as a contingent of Mexican Marines tried to batter down the reinforced steel door to his safe house in Culiacán, in the heart of Guzmán’s empire.
Above ground, the Marines — members of an elite unit renowned for its resistance to the corruption that exists at nearly every level of Mexican law enforcement — frantically searched the safe house, until they came to the master bathroom, where the bathtub rose to reveal a set of wooden stairs disappearing into the darkness.
“Tunel, tunel, tunel!” a Marine cried.
One of the men threw a flash-bang grenade into the abyss, hoping to stun and disorient any threats lurking below, and then descended into the tunnel. But it was too late. El Chapo had escaped. Again.
Jurors in Brooklyn federal court on Thursday heard opposing narratives of the near-capture of the alleged drug lord, real name Joaquín Guzmán Loera, from Guzmán’s on-again, off-again girlfriend — who described her lover’s birthday-suit mad dash in vivid detail — and from a Drug Enforcement Administration agent who was riding with the Mexican marines who kicked down the door that night and missed their mark by a matter of minutes.
Representing the authorities on Thursday was Victor Vazquez, a 15-year veteran of the DEA who, at the time, was the agency’s main liaison to the Mexican marines, better known as SEMAR. They had been stalking Guzmán and two other top cartel leaders for the past month, working mostly out of a SEMAR base across the Sea of Cortez in Baja California.
And giving jurors the first glimpse into the raid from El Chapo’s side was Lucero Guadalupe Sanchez Lopez, a former state legislator from Sinaloa who moonlighted as Guzmán’s lover, unpaid marijuana buyer and shell company operator for several years in the early 2010s.
Sanchez cut a somewhat pathetic figure on the witness stand, speaking timidly through a translator. Following a mid-afternoon break, the hearing was delayed for five minutes as Sanchez gasped and sobbed into her lapel microphone. When jurors returned, she sat stoically, if puffy-eyed.
Sitting in the gallery, El Chapo’s beauty-queen wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, allowed herself a chuckle when Sanchez admitted that she was “confused” about the nature of her relationship with Guzmán.
Sanchez first met Guzmán in 2010, and the young 20-something from rural Sinaloa appeared to have left an impression on Guzmán, because months later he sent one of his men to bring her one of his trademark BlackBerry phones, which he used to communicate with his wife, his lovers and members of his inner circle. Within a few hours, the BlackBerry lit up: El Chapo was calling, and he wanted to see Sanchez again. The two began to communicate regularly, she said, and before long, he was flying her out to his hideouts — first once or twice a month and later up to three times a month.
In addition to warming his bed, Sanchez was useful for Guzmán’s business as well. She had lived for a time in a rural community where farmers grew marijuana, and El Chapo, who was short on product, asked if Sanchez could do him a solid and fly up into the mountains to negotiate the purchase of nearly half a ton of weed.
The only request of Guzmán’s that Sanchez said gave her pause was when he asked her to see if the growers would sell him the pot on credit. She put her foot down, she said, insisting that the farmers get paid upfront for their merchandise.
“I thought it was unfair, because the people who had worked so hard,” she said. “If it went out on credit, they would not get the money back.”
Sanchez began to make regular flights into the mountains to buy marijuana for her lover, communicating with him “at all hours” regarding minute details of the shipments, which were packaged into loads of 10 kilos and crammed onto a plane that could hold up to 400 kilos at a time, she said.
At one point, she even used her position as weed buyer — for which she said she was never paid — as a way of getting her beau to invite her to see him. Rather than buy high-quality sinsemilla, or seedless, weed, she intentionally sent Guzmán a load of lower-quality pot rife with seeds, and he noticed, reminding her gently to lookout for bolla, the best weed around, and inadvertently foiling her crafty plan.
“I was actually sending packages with seeds because I wanted him to get upset with me so he would ask me to come back,” she said. “But I didn’t manage it.”
She also took to sending him love letters in the form of specially stamped bales of weed. In one text message read aloud in court Thursday, Sanchez told her lover that the next shipment headed his way was marked with a reference to his birthday, April 4th, as well as her feelings for him.
“The heart means I love you,” Sanchez wrote. “And the 4 means I bless the day you came into this world.”
As time went on however, the grim reality of her new job became apparent to Sanchez. Word had gotten back to Guzmán that despite her efforts to be discrete, people had spotted her buying pot, people were talking and that gave her pause.
“I may show up hanging somewhere, due to envy. I can’t sleep, love,” she texted Guzmán at one point.
He tried to reassure her, but reassurances did not appear to come naturally to El Chapo.
“Look, the mafia kills people who don’t pay, or who snitch, but not if you’re serious,” he wrote to Sanchez.
As time wore on, she grew more uncomfortable with the danger inherent to working for Guzmán, and he grew ever more paranoid. In late 2011, when she and El Chapo were living together for a time, his secretary and bodyguard came running into the room with terrible news.
“Tío, tío, Virgo is dead!” he exclaimed, referring to Juan Guzman Rocha, a cousin and longtime lieutenant to Chapo, who was murdered December 11th, 2011.
“First he did not react,” Sanchez told jurors. “He looked at me seriously and then he said some words I did not like. What he said was that from that point on, whoever betrayed him was going to die, whether they were family or women.”
Things were strained after that, and in 2012, she said they stopped seeing each other for a while.
“It seemed like the relationship was never going to end, but it finally ended,” she said.
But nothing is so simple in love and drug trafficking. Several years later, in early 2014, Sánchez said she got a call from one of El Chapo’s henchmen, saying he wanted to see her. So on the night of February 17th, 2014, she found herself sleeping with Guzmán in a safe house in Culiacán, when el Chapo’s trusty secretary, nicknamed Condor, burst into the room.
“Tío, tío, they’re on us!” Condor cried.
Sánchez, Condor and a maid rushed for the master bathroom. Guzmán did not have time to put on clothes.
Victor Vazquez knew that their best shot at locating El Chapo would be to nab one of the few people who knew where the fugitive drug lord was hiding. So in mid-February, he and the marines set about searching Culiacán for a man they knew went by the name Nariz — meaning “nose” — an errand guy who passed messages and fetched food and other necessities for El Chapo. Vazquez said he had a good feeling when SEMAR came across a block party in a tony section of town, the street blocked by a pair of SUVs.
“He’s gotta be here,” Vazquez recalled thinking.
The Marines, with Vazquez in tow, raided the block, lining up the men while the women sat around complaining about the intrusion, Vazquez said. It was a promising sign when several of the men emptied their pockets to reveal BlackBerrys of the sort used by El Chapo’s henchmen, but Vazquez still wasn’t sure what Nariz looked like.
“I just knew it had something to do with his nose,” Vazquez told jurors. “Whether that was big nose, small nose, no nose, I didn’t know. But something told me to focus on the nose.”
In the end, Vazquez didn’t have to appraise every nose assembled before him. One of the women nearby got antsy, he noticed, and suddenly she got up, saying she had to check on her baby. Vazquez and some Marines followed her into the nicest house on the block, where they found a man — with a somewhat prominent schnoz — hiding in the master bedroom.
“You’re Nariz,” Vazquez said.
In short order, Nariz agreed to cooperate with the search party, and with the informant in tow, Vazquez and the Marines headed to the street to where Nariz said his boss was laying low. Driving up the block, Vazquez used a set of car keys he had swiped from Nariz and began hitting the garage remote. When one of the garages opened, he knew they had the right house.
“I was actually surprised it worked,” he said.
After beating down the reinforced steel door — it was so strong that the first battering ram buckled and they had to grab another — the Marines stormed the house, only to find that their target had escaped. They found some guns, and some rocket-propelled grenades, but no Chapo. Undeterred, Vazquez left some men at the house to secure it and began systematically hitting every other safe house in town that Nariz identified, uncovering a network of houses containing drugs, weapons, and hydraulic tubs and tunnels similar to the one through which Chapo had escaped that night. But Guzmán was nowhere in sight.
He didn’t stay hidden for long. Using information gleaned from a wiretap on the cartel’s phone network, the marines and the Americans advising them tracked Guzmán to a hotel in Mazatlán, a beach town in Baja California. After staking him out for a time, SEMAR made its move. As the marines moved in, Vazquez, who was technically there in an advisory role stood in the lobby of the Hotel Miramar. He didn’t have to wait long: within minutes, his radio crackled to life and he heard the code he had been longing for: “7-7-7, confirmado.”
“I knew they had got him,” Vazquez recalled.
The appearance of Sanchez on the stand Thursday afternoon capped off a week of increasingly outlandish testimony at the trial of El Chapo, who faces life in prison if convicted of the top count of running an international drug smuggling empire.
On Monday, Colombian drug trafficker Alex Cifuentes gave jurors an inside look at Guzmán’s life on the lam in the mountains of Sinaloa, including his habit of sleeping late, enjoying maid service at the rustic cabins he called home, and the occasional madcap run through canyons to escape military patrols. On Tuesday, defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman revealed a stunning accusation Cifuentes had made to U.S. authorities: in 2012, Cifuentes had said, Guzmán paid a $100 million bribe to then-incoming Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, an allegation Nieto’s former spokesman forcefully denied.
On Tuesday, after a break for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Sánchez will take the stand once more, as prosecutors prepare to rest their case against Guzmán by the end of the week. After that, the defense will likely call witnesses to testify on el Chapo’s behalf. And according to a list of possible witnesses submitted by his attorneys, that could include Guzmán himself, who has one more chance to control the narrative of his legend.