Reputed cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera has spent much of his time in court focusing on his translator, or craning his neck to get a view of his beauty-queen wife, who dutifully sits in the second row of the courtroom in Downtown Brooklyn.
But on Wednesday, as the government began to call its first witnesses in what promises to be a drawn out trial full of the macabre details of decades of drug smuggling, shootouts, and murders, El Chapo snapped to attention. Sitting in the witness stand, just feet from Guzmán, was Jesus Reynaldo Zambada Garcia, the brother of El Chapo’s former partner, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada Garcia, and a high-ranking lieutenant in his own right in the Sinaloa Cartel, which Guzmán is accused of running for decades. Guzmán faces a 17-count indictment accusing him of drug trafficking, and while he is not formally charged with murder, prosecutors accuse him of arranging dozens of killings and personally committing at least two. He faces life in prison if convicted.
Following opening arguments, the government began to call its first witnesses Wednesday, starting with Carlos Salazar, a former United States customs official who, on a tip, helped uncover a smuggling tunnel between Agua Prieta, Mexico, and Douglas, Arizona, in May of 1990.
In a video shown to the court, prosecutors showed how the tunnel was cleverly hidden on one side of the border by flooring that could be raised using a hydraulic system. Photos of the tunnel showed the intricate engineering and gave a clue into the vast smuggling network that earned El Chapo the nickname “El Rapido” for the speed with which he allegedly moved massive shipments of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana.
Following the brief testimony of a second witness, it was Zambada’s turn.
Zambada, 57, who was arrested in Mexico in October of 2008 and extradited to the United States in 2012, told the court he worked as a “subleader” in the cartel, answering to his brother and El Chapo. Trained as an accountant, he spoke in a soft, cheerful voice as he explained to prosecutors the inner workings of the organization, detailing how the cartel transported drugs and describing how the faction of the cartel represented by his brother and El Chapo fought a vicious war against the Beltrán-Leyva brothers Arturo, Alfredo, and Hector, who had previously been allies of El Mayo and el Chapo.
On Wednesday, the first day of his testimony, assistant U.S. Attorney Gina Parlovecchio methodically questioned Zambada about his involvement with the Sinaloa Cartel, in an exchange that became almost mundane as she sought to give jurors a crash course in the size and scope of the cartel, as well as the day-to-day operation of an international drug conspiracy. Speaking through a translator, Zambada’s answer to many of the prosecutor’s questions followed a similar refrain.
How did he know the structure of the cartel?
“Because I was in the cartel.”
How did he identify his brother in a photo shown to jurors?
“Because I grew up with him.”
How did he know El Mayo operated out of his stronghold in the mountains of Sinaloa and Durango?
“Because I visited him there.”
How was he able to tell the jury the details of the cartel’s smuggling operation?
“Because I was part of it.”
But as they delved deeper into the inner workings of the cartel, Parlovecchio’s questions began to hone in on more specific aspects of Zambada’s role in the organization, which Zambada testified included operating three warehouses in Mexico City, and overseeing the importation of drugs from Colombia to Mexico, to their eventual exportation to the United States. As Parlovecchio showed jurors a map of the United States, Zambada carefully laid out the route a kilo of cocaine bought for $3,000 in Colombia took to get to the United States, and the various profits to be found depending on where it ended up and the cost it took to get there: a kilo sold for $20,000 in Los Angeles netted the cartel a cool $13,000 in profit; the same kilo sold in Chicago for $25,000 put $16,000 in the cartel’s pockets; in New York, the Sinaloa crew sold the brick for a whopping $35,000, pocketing $25,000, Zambada said.
The drugs were shipped north in every manner imaginable, including planes, trucks and submarines, but the most common method for smugglers was via specially built speedboats and fishing vessels which could move literal tons of the stuff at a time. Zambada’s job was to control the cartel’s operations in Mexico City, overseeing logistics and making sure the shipments went smoothly.
“I controlled the airport in Mexico City and I controlled the authorities to provide security for drug trafficking movements that occurred in the city and to provide security for drug trafficking leaders,” he told jurors.
Controlling the authorities meant paying bribes to the office of the Attorney General of Mexico, Zambada said, as well as to the Federal Highway Police, whose job it was to guard the shipments as they travelled overland from the resort town of Cancún to points north.
One hundred percent of it, he told the court, made its way to the United States.
Slowly but surely, Zambada began to demystify the Sinaloa Cartel. On Thursday, prosecutors left logistics behind and began to focus on the bloody side of the business, zeroing with particular focus on a bloody war between El Mayo and Chapo’s organization and the Tijuana Cartel, an outfit overseen by the brothers Ramón and Benjamin Arellano Felix.
Zambada continued to speak casually, in a helpful, chipper tone — but the details grew dark. In one exchange, Zambada told the court about the murder of a rival during the war with the Arellano-Felix organization.
“The shot him, they put a bullet in his neck, and they killed him,” he said.
Throughout it all, Guzmán, sitting with his defense attorneys and translator, craned his neck to get a view of his alleged former subordinate as Zambada, dressed in dark blue prison garb, described gangland killings, multi-ton drug shipments, and even the christening of a cartel leader’s baby boy by a nervous priest in the weeks following El Chapo’s 2001 escape from Mexican prison.
Zambada’s appearance on Wednesday drew a subdued chorus of gasps when he was called, largely because of his last name, which he shares with his brother, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada Garcia, El Chapo’s reputed partner at the top of the Sinaloa hierarchy and the main bogeyman in the defense team’s opening arguments.
“While the world focuses on this mythical Chapo figure, the world is not focusing on Mayo Zambada,” Lichtman told jurors, pacing the courtroom. “El Mayo is comfortable, evading capture his entire life.”
There’s some truth to Lichtman’s argument, 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 said. “He was so evasive, but I think he got very excited about his reputation he built up over the years as the guy, as the chief of Sinaloa.”
El Chapo’s alleged partner, on the other hand, ran things from the shadows, Maltz says.
“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 says. “He sat in the background and made his billions in a different way, but to say that he was the sole head during that period? No, it was a business partnership.”
El Mayo is indeed less well known than El Chapo, but he’s not the phantom described by Lichtman. His name is listed alongside Guzmáns on every charge in the 2009 indictment for which Guzmán is currently on trial, and in the wake of El Chapo’s extradition to the United States in 2017, following his last prison break in 2015, El Mayo Zambada is rumored to now be the main operational leader of the Sinaloa Cartel.
Born in Sinaloa, El Mayo is believed to have gotten his start in the trafficking organization of Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, and worked closely with Amado Carillo Fuentes, a drug lord known as “Lord of the Skies.” Following the arrest of Gallardo in 1989, the cartel split into two branches: the Sinaloa Cartel controlled by El Mayo and Guzmán, and the Tijuana Cartel, which was run by the Arellano-Felix brothers.
By the late 1990s, while El Chapo was running his operations from prison, El Mayo had become one of the principle drug traffickers in Mexico, according to the State Department, and controlled a vast swath of territory in Sinaloa, Durango and the state of Nayarit, while also controlling importation on the gulf coast, particularly in Cancún.
When the Mexican government unleashed its armed forces against drug traffickers in 2006, the brunt fell on the Tijuana Cartel, and El Chapo and El Mayo made use of the chaos to begin poaching territory from the Arellano-Felix brothers, according to Maltz.
“He’s very, very savvy, very sophisticated, and he’s a brilliant drug trafficker,” Maltz said. “If you look at the evolution of the cartel, these guys were geniuses.”
El Mayo remains at large, but his family hasn’t gone unscathed. Coming on the heels of the arrest of his brother, Vicente Zambada Niebla, 39 — El Mayo’s son — was arrested in Mexico in 2009 and extradited in 2010. The younger Zambada pleaded guilty last week in Chicago federal court, where prosecutors argued for unspecified leniency at sentencing, which is scheduled for early next year. It is rumored that Zambada Niebla, like his uncle, could testify against El Chapo.
El Mayo’s brother, however, is not done testifying. Prosecutors are scheduled to resume questioning him on the stand on Monday, and the defense team’s cross examination is set to start Monday afternoon.