For a time, despite the high price on his head, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s life wasn’t so bad. Ensconced in a series of mountain hideouts in the Sierra Madre Occidental range of his home state of Sinaloa, on the west coast of Mexico, Guzmán would typically wake up at noon, receive the morning’s messages from a secretary, and eat lunch.
On the rare occasions that his young wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, was visiting, he would feast on his favorite meal of enchiladas suizas — a dish featured in a series of racy text messages read aloud this month in court — before making some calls on a long-range cordless telephone.
Guarded by three rings of armed guards, El Chapo, the alleged don of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, was treated to maid service in his mountain redoubts, and frequently hosted a seemingly endless string of visiting mistresses, indulging in his greatest vices: women, and his own myth.
Until now, the details of Guzmán’s years on the run have been largely obscured, thanks in part to his success in lying low between his first prison break in 2001 and his eventual capture in 2014. But in a day of gripping testimony from a man who described himself as El Chapo’s “secretary, his right-hand man, and his left-hand man,” a portrait emerged Monday of the alleged kingpin’s life in hiding, a mix of creature comforts and the occasional mad dash into the hinterlands of Sinaloa, with the Mexican army hot on his tail.
Alex Cifuentes, a Colombian drug trafficker who spent nearly two years embedded with Guzmán in the mountains of Sinaloa, spent all day on the stand Monday, his second day of testimony against El Chapo, now in the third month of a trial that could put Guzmán behind bars for life.
Cifuentes hails from a family of drug traffickers from Medellín, and is the second member of the clan to take the stand and confess to working intimately with Guzmán in the later years of his career, collaborating with the Sinaloa Cartel to smuggle thousands of kilos of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine into the United States. Alex Cifuentes, 51, corroborated much of the earlier testimony from his brother, Jorge Cifuentes, who testified in December; but while Jorge focused largely on the supply side of Guzmán’s alleged cocaine operation, Alex Cifuentes dug much deeper into Guzmán’s daily life during their years working together, and delved into the cartel’s business.
Cifuentes was just the latest in a series of former high-ranking narcos to take the stand against the man they all say was once their boss. As he entered the courtroom last Thursday, the two men appeared to size each other up, nodding at one another as Cifuentes put a hand to his heart. When asked to identify Guzmán in the courtroom, Cifuentes stood up, and squinted in the direction of the defense table.
“I can’t really distinguish his eye color, but this is the first time I’ve seen him wearing a suit,” he said, drawing a chuckle from members of the public, and a smile from Guzmán’s wife.
Like his brother Jorge, Alex Cifuentes got involved in the drug trade early in life, along with his siblings and some of their children. So thoroughly was the family involved, at every level, that he even discussed sensitive details of the business with his mother, according to phone calls intercepted by the FBI.
By late 2007, the Cifuentes family had a line on a lucrative new partnership — between their connections to cocaine suppliers in Colómbia and Ecuador, and the Sinaloa Cartel’s smuggling routes, they all stood to make a fortune, Cifuentes told jurors on Thursday. And the opportunity came at a difficult time for the family: the eldest brother, Francisco “Pacho” Cifuentes, had recently been assassinated, and his younger siblings were looking for revenge; they had to pay a debt to Guzmán that had been outstanding at the time of Pachito’s death; and Alex, who had long suffered from alcoholism, had a near-death brush with pancreatitis, and was forced to travel to Mexico City for emergency surgery. On his way to Mexico, he told his siblings that if he made it, he’d head to Sinaloa.
“Jorge needed about $10 million” to pay the debt to El Chapo, Cifuentes said. “I told them that if I managed to come out of the surgery, I’d do whatever was needed.”
In addition to positioning their organization as a major supplier to the cartel, the family had another motive when Alex Cifuentes headed to Sinaloa:
“To go back and find out who killed our brother, so we could get revenge,” Cifuentes said.
So after he recovered from surgery, in the fall of 2007, Cifuentes headed for the mountains, flying from Culiacán in a shaky Cessna and landing at a clandestine airstrip manned by as many as 50 armed guards, who escorted him up a mountain in ATVs to meet Guzmán.
According to Cifuentes, El Chapo greeted him by expressing sympathy for the loss of his brother Francisco, but he soon got down to business: he wanted to be put in touch with one of the eldest Cifuentes brother’s widows, with whom he hoped to coordinate cocaine shipments. The deals that followed, which included the sale of some of the widow’s farms to Guzmán, gave Alex Cifuentes a glimpse of the master at work.
“He was a good businessman,” Cifuentes recalled. “He’s always trying to get an advantage on the deal.”
Following his arrival, Cifuentes stuck close to Guzmán’s side for almost two years. Arriving as an envoy of his family’s Colómbia-based organization, he grew into the role of a close aide to El Chapo, involving himself in nearly every aspect of Guzmán’s activities, which by then had expanded well past moving cocaine for Colómbian suppliers.
Cifuentes helped Guzmán acquire weapons from several sources, including a corrupt army captain in Ecuador; the widow of a Honduran drug trafficker; and an Israeli narco based in Europe.
He described how he worked to distribute Sinaloa cocaine in New York via a pair of Dominican traffickers; sold coke, meth and heroin in bulk to a Canadian mobster nicknamed Tony Suzuki; briefly looked into ferrying drugs from isolated properties on the American side of Lake Champlain to equally isolated properties on the Canadian side; and helped the cartel locate precursor chemicals for making methamphetamine, at one point having his assistant dictate a meth recipe to him over the phone.
And, crucially, he worked with Christian Rodriguez, a young Colombian IT guy, to set up a wireless internet system in the mountains of Sinaloa and develop an encrypted messaging system that allowed El Chapo much greater ability to run the day-to-day operations of his organization — until the FBI flipped Rodriguez and gained access to hundreds of recordings of Guzmán allegedly directing his subordinates in all manner of illegal activities.
It was Cifuentes, speaking on the encrypted network — by that time hacked by the feds — to his mother, who he told about Guzmán’s suspicion that Rodriguez was talking to the government, inadvertently tipping Rodriguez off and prompting him to flee to the relative safety of witness protection in the United States. (The attempt to track down Rodriguez may have been stymied in part by the fact that Cifuentes didn’t even know the young tech savant’s name. In a recorded phone call with his assistant, who also later collaborated with the FBI, the assistant could be heard suggesting that Cifuentes google him, or look him up on Facebook.)
He was there for some close calls, including an army raid in 2010 that involved a last-minute scramble through a canyon, armed to the teeth with automatic weapons and grenade launchers as soldiers closed in unsuccessfully.
Throughout it all, Cifuentes stayed in the rugged backlands of rural Sinaloa, where El Chapo spent most of his time to avoid being captured. Despite his closeness with Guzmán, Cifuentes said he remained something between employee, honored guest and prisoner. During the 18 or so months he spent alongside Chapo, the alleged cartel leader denied multiple requests by Cifuentes to return to Colombia, Cifuentes told jurors on Monday.
Finally, in the spring of 2009, Guzmán allowed Cifuentes to descend from the mountains, and he took up residence in Cancún, where he continued to collaborate closely with both his family’s activities in South America and the cartel’s international smuggling network. Finally, in 2013, he was arrested.
In the first day of his testimony Thursday, Cifuentes recalled an interaction he had had with Jorge, well before either of them ended up in American handcuffs, that gave a glimpse into his decision to testify against his former boss el Chapo.
“[Jorge] told me, and these were his exact word, that with the Americans I should confess the way that I would confess to God,” he said. “And that if I were to decide go to trial, he would be the first to testify against me.”
After nearly three months of trial, 10 cooperating witnesses, and dozens of hours of testimony, the end is beginning to come into sight, as the government winds down its case against Guzmán. After the prosecution rests its case, the defense team will have a chance, finally, to call its own witnesses. According to a report in the New York Times, that could include Lucero Guadalupe Sanchez Lopez, a former Sinaloa state legislator and Chapo’s former lover, as well as an unnamed criminal the defense team hinted it intends to call from prison to testify on Guzmán’s behalf.
For now, however, the parade of narco witnesses and law-enforcement officers testifying against el Chapo continues, with Cifuentes set to take the stand once again Tuesday morning.