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El Chapo Trial: Defense Zeroes in on $100 Million Presidential Bribe

Witness Alex Cifuentes claimed that the alleged cartel kingpin bribed then-President Enrique Peña Nieto in 2012 — and El Chapo’s defense seem to be making this a central part of their argument

January 3, 2019 - New York, NY, United States - A view of a photographic reproduction of a drawing by artist Jane Rosenberg that shows Mexican drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman (R) and his lawyer Eduardo Balarezo (L), during a hearing at the South District Court of Brooklyn, in New York, United States, 03 Januray 2019. Zambada described the El Chapo's escape from prison in 2003. (Credit Image: © Jane Rosenberg/EFE via ZUMA Press)

El Chapo has been on trial since early November.

Jane Rosenberg/EFE/ZUMA Press

Joaquín “Al Chapo” Guzmán paid a $100 million bribe to former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, at the beginning of Peña Nieto’s term, in a bid by Guzmán to buy the protection of the then-incoming president, according to a witness who once worked closely with El Chapo.

The accusations, which implicated nearly every level of the Mexican state, came during testimony at the trial of the alleged Sinaloa Cartel kingpin, who faces a 17-count indictment for drug trafficking and associated charges that could put him away for life.

Alex Cifuentes, a Colombian drug smuggler who last week described himself as a “secretary, right-hand man, and left-hand man” to Guzmán, told prosecutors during a series of debriefing sessions 2017 and 2018 that Guzmán had handed over the mammoth bribe to Peña Nieto in 2012 in hopes of coming out of hiding, according to Guzmán’s defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman. Cifuentes made the bombshell accusation Tuesday afternoon at the prompting of Lichtman, who prodded Cifuentes during cross-examination to recall details about the bribery and their intended results by reading from a transcript of Cifuentes’s earlier conversations with prosecutors.

Enrique Peña NietoMexican President message to the nation, Mexico City - 02 Sep 2017 Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto gestures during his fifth message to the nation, in Mexico City, Mexico, 02 September 2017.

Former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has denied taking bribes. photo: Jorge Nunez/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

“Mr. Guzman pays money and the president allows Mr. Guzman to keep working?” Lichtman asked

“I imagine so,” Cifuentes replied.

The accusation came toward the end of the third day on the stand for Cifuentes, 51, who has been testifying about the years he spent in the close orbit of El Chapo, including nearly two years with Guzmán hiding from Mexican authorities in the mountains of Sinaloa.

In addition to implicating Peña Nieto, Cifuentes had also accused the recently departed president’s predecessor Felipe Calderón of siding with Chapo’s enemies, the Beltrán-Leyva organization, during a bloody war between the two cartels, and also alleged that Guzmán sent suitcases stuffed with cocaine from Argentina to Mexican federal police, who in turn sold the drugs themselves, Cifuentes told jurors, with prodding from Lichtman.

“I was working with my wife, Angie San Clemente, and working with the Mexican Federal Police — with Señor Guzmán’s authorization,” Cifuentes said.

“And you claimed the police would then sell the drugs, correct?” Lichtman asked. “You said the police were the customers of the drug dealers?”

“Yes,” Cifuentes said.

Cifuentes was not the only one to use this method, according to Lichtman, reading from a transcript of the proffer sessions, who added that Cifuentes had told prosecutors that the federales also imported cocaine-filled suitcases on behalf of “La Barbie,” the nickname for the American-born drug lord Edgar Valdez Villarreal.

Despite initially making the bribery accusations in 2017, Cifuentes had later backed off, and said in a September 2018 conversation with prosecutors that he was not so sure about how much money traded hands, but that the events had happened as described.

Peña Nieto has previously denied taking bribes, according to Vice News, pointing to the fact that it was his government who caught el Chapo — twice, first in 2014 and again in early 2016 after Guzmán’s 2015 spectacular prison break — and extradited him the the United States. A spokesman for Peña Nieto, who left office in December, has described the accusations as “false and defamatory,” according to the Associated Press.


Originally from Colombia, Cifuentes is a member of
the Cifuentes-Villa family, a clan of narco-traffickers from Medellín that authorities say became one of the main suppliers of cocaine to the Sinaloa Cartel in the later years of El Chapo’s career.

By Tuesday afternoon, Cifuentes had spent nearly three full days days regaling jurors with tales of his life in El Chapo’s mountain hideouts, including details about Guzmán’s daily schedule, his security detail, his demand for heavy, military-grade weaponry, and a handful of hasty escapes from the army. And on Tuesday morning, he discussed various murder-for-hire and kidnapping plots, most of them unsuccessful, that Guzmán had hatched from hiding.

Later that day, he walked jurors through a series of accusations of staggering corruption at nearly every level of the Mexican government, from local cops to federales to judges, all the way to heads of state on the payroll — and taking orders — from multiple drug traffickers, including the Sinaloa Cartel. The accusations against Peña Nieto drew gasps from the audience.

According to Cifuentes’ recollection during the proffer sessions, Peña Nieto was the one to approach Guzmán, telling him that for $250 million, Peña Nieto would allow El Chapo — who had been hiding out in the mountains since he escaped a maximum-security prison in 2001 — to come out of hiding and continue trafficking drugs.

Ever the negotiator, Guzmán instead sent Peña Nieto $100 million in October 2012, months after Peña Nieto’s electoral victory that July, according  Lichtman’s reading of the Cifuentes proffer sessions. In November, Guzmán appeared to have received word that the bribe was successful, according to Lichtman’s reading of the proffer sessions.

“In this one, you claim that President Peña Nieto contacted Mr. Guzmán, and the message was that he didn’t have to stay in hiding, and that he could continue working,” Lichtman said, referring to a transcript of one of the debriefings.

“Yes, that is what Joaquín told me,” Cifuentes replied.

According to Cifuentes, Guzmán delivered the money through an intermediary, a woman named Andrea Fernandez Velez, who worked as a secretary for Cifuentes and moonlighted running a modeling agency in Mexico City whose young women the cartel used to curry favor in debaucherous parties for Mexican officials.

In his proffer sessions, Cifuentes told authorities that Fernandez had delivered the bribes in cash, stuffed into suitcases, and placed aboard the jet of a prominent political consultant who had worked on Peña Nieto’s presidential campaign.


Under questioning from Lichtman Tuesday afternoon,
Cifuentes said he had seen photos sent by Fernandez of the suitcases full of cash, but disputed the anecdote about her flying them to the president-elect on the consultant’s plane.

The corruption allegations were somewhat muddled by such equivocations by Cifuentes, and also by a verbal flub on Lichtman’s part — he initially said Cifuentes had told prosecutors of a $250 bribe, a figure that was corrected by Judge Brian M. Cogan.

And the accusations rest solely on the word of Cifuentes, a confessed drug trafficker facing the possibility of life in prison.

But Guzmán’s defense team appears eager to press the issue. From the beginning of the trial, Lichtman has sought to downplay Guzmán’s role in the cartel hierarchy, and instead focus the blame on Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada Garcia, the man reputed to be the current head of the Sinaloa Cartel and long believed to be el Chapo’s closest ally and partner. In his opening statement, Lichtman accused el Mayo of using his influence with Mexican politicians to remain free, while the blame fell on the far more notorious Guzmán. Zambada, Lichtman said at the time, has paid “hundreds of millions of dollars” in bribes, “including up to the very top — the current president of Mexico.” (In early November, when the trial began, Peña Nieto was still president of Mexico. He has since been succeeded by Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, who has also had his name come up at the trial in relation to high-flying bribery, along with former president Felipe Calderón.)

Court adjourned Tuesday afternoon with Cifuentes still on the stand, and he is set to return for more questioning on Wednesday morning.

In a scheduling discussion with Judge Cogan following the testimony Tuesday afternoon, prosecutors said they expect to rest the government’s case by the end of next week, or early the following week. Then the defense team is expected to call its own witnesses. And that could include testimony from Guzmán himself, according to defense attorney Eduardo Balarezo, who spoke with the New York Daily News on Tuesday.

“Mr. Guzman has a right to testify in his own defense — he also has a constitutional right to remain silent, and that should not be held against him,” Balarezo said, according to the Daily News. “With respect to whether or not he will testify, the defense has not made a final decision, but it is possible.”

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