A heavily disfigured former Colombian drug kingpin and confessed murderer appear took the stand in Brooklyn federal court Thursday afternoon, the latest in a parade of star witnesses called to testify against Guzmán, who is on trial for allegedly running the Sinaloa Cartel, long one of Mexico’s most powerful drug-trafficking organizations.
Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia, 57 — better known as “Chupeta,” or Lollypop — struck a garish figure, with his skin pulled taut over his lopsided face, the result of three or four reconstruction surgeries he underwent while in order to avoid detection. Most of the jurors seemed riveted by his nightmarish appearance, save for one who struggled to look at the witness as he spoke. Adding to Chupeta’s bizarre visage, he appeared in court clad in a black puffy parka and thick fleece gloves, apparently due to an unspecified medical condition referenced by Judge Brian M. Cogan before Ramirez took the stand.
Ramirez addressed his appearance as he spoke to the jurors. “I altered the physical appearance of my face by changing my jawbones, my cheekbones, my eyes, mouth and ears,” he said.
While the previous two major witnesses focused largely on El Chapo’s activities in Mexico, the testimony by Chupeta gave jurors a window into the Colombian connection that, as El Chapo began to focus more on cocaine and less on marijuana, made him one of the wealthiest men in Mexico.
Chupeta came to power in the 1980s as part of the North Valley Cartel, which began as an ally of the powerful Cali Cartel and stepped into its shoes when authorities arrested the Cali leadership.
Like his Mexican counterparts, Chupeta relied heavily on bribery and corruption to keep his outfit running smoothly, with an entire “front,” or section, of his cartel dedicated to paying off corrupt cops and officials in Colombia to look the other way, Ramirez said.
That came in handy in 1988, after an aborted attempt by Ramirez to fly to the United States on false papers, something he had done several times before in order to set up a distribution network in New York. This time, however, Ramirez was busted with a fake passport by customs officials in Miami and put on a plane back to Colombia, where authorities threw him in jail for traveling on false documents.
Within a month, after paying the right people off, Ramirez said he was able to not only get out of prison, but also remove any record of the arrest. Apparently already paranoid about being recognized — years before his botched plastic surgery — he took the extra step of paying officials to remove any photo of him from police files, along with his fingerprints, he said.
“It’s impossible to be the leader of a drug trafficking organization in Colombia without having that corruption,” Chupeta told jurors. “They go hand in hand.”
The fateful hookup with Guzmán’s Sinaloa Cartel took place in the early 1990s, when Chupeta met with El Chapo and other top Sinaloa honchos in the lobby of a Tijuana hotel, Ramirez told jurors.
Recalling the meeting nearly 30 years later, Ramirez said that El Chapo, then a rising star in the Mexican drug-trafficking scene, struck him as brash, and so confident in his smuggling routes and access to corrupt officials that he demanded 40 percent of each cocaine shipment as payment, three percent more than the 37 percent that other Mexican traffickers were charging.
“He said ‘I’m a lot faster,’” Ramirez told the court. “‘Try me and you will see. And your planes and your pilots and your cocaine are gonna be a lot more secure.’”
During a handful of meetings over the next two months, Ramirez struck a deal with Guzmán: in exchange for 40 percent of each shipment, Guzmán would get the coke north to the United States, where the North Valley Cartel had an infrastructure to sell it on the streets of New York. If the cocaine was seized en route to Mexico, Chupeta was on the hook, while a seizure in Mexico meant Guzmán had to pay up. But El Chapo’s bribery network in Mexico was secure enough that that rarely happened, Ramirez said.
“But him, in Mexico, you seldom lost, because of their corruption agreement,” Ramirez told jurors.
Guzmán kept his promises, according to Ramirez and other witnesses who previously testified, using cross-border tunnels, dummy jalapeño cans and other ingenious smuggling methods that earned him the name “El Rapido.” Miguel Ángel Martinez Martinez, a former top lieutenant to Guzmán, told jurors this week that Guzmán was capable of getting a shipment of cocaine from its landing in Mexico to Los Angeles in 24 hours.
The relationship forged in those meetings would last for nearly 20 years, Chupeta told jurors, and helped both men amass a staggering fortune. According to Chupeta, who was arrested in hiding in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 2007, authorities have confiscated more than $1 billion in cash and assets that he had earned between the late 1980s and the mid-2000s as one of the leaders of the North Valley Cartel.
Unlike the previous two major witnesses, who claimed to have never had a direct role in the violence that prosecutors say undergirded the power of the cartels, Chupeta calmly confessed to having significant blood on his hands. In response to questions from prosecutors, the former drug lord told jurors he had personally ordered at least 150 murders.
When Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Goldberg asked Ramirez if he had ever personally murdered somebody, he responded in the affirmative.
“Yes, in 2004. With gunshots in the head and the face,” he said. “I shot the person with a gun.”
The testimony by Ramirez came after a week of dramatic testimony by El Chapo’s former lieutenant Miguel Ángel Martinez Martinez, who described in detail Guzmán’s rise to power in the late 1980s and early 1990s, cataloguing the exorbitant luxury of his former boss’s countless beach houses and ranches. He also described four assassination attempts that took place after Martinez had been arrested in 1998, in which hitmen he believed to be hired by Guzmán repeatedly tried to kill him, first with three brutal stabbing, and finally by hurling grenades at his cell.
In a particularly macabre gesture, Martinez said Guzmán hired a brass band to stand outside the jail the night before the grenade attack and, for eight hours, play on repeat “Un Puño de Tierra,” a corrido that was a favorite of Guzmán, which extolls the importance of “living intensely,” because all you will take with you in the end is a fistful of dirt, as referenced by the song title.
On Thursday, the drama continued when DEA agents unboxed about 10 kilos of cocaine, which they placed on a table for the jurors to see, who snapped to attention when the coke appeared.
Ramirez is scheduled to continue his testimony when court reconvenes on Monday. The trial, which finished its third week on Thursday, is expected to last as long as four months.