A star witness in the trial of cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán told jurors Tuesday that he personally gave millions of dollars in bribes to the top security chief for former Mexican President Felipe Calderón. He also said he gave millions to a top aid to incoming President Andres Manuel López Obrador, appearing to ensnare both politicians in the Sinaloa Cartel’s extensive web of corruption.
In his fourth and final day of testimony, Jesús Reynaldo “El Rey” Zambada García said that he handed a bribe of “a few million dollars” to Gabriel Regino in 2005, who at the time served as undersecretary of public security to then-Mexico City Mayor López Obrador. At the time, Obrador was a leading candidate in the 2006 Mexican presidential election.
Regino, who now works as a professor of criminology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, or UNAM, took to Twitter within minutes of Zambada’s testimony to forcefully deny the allegation. “It is false that during my exercise of public service I received any bribery from the witness Jesus Zambada,” Regino wrote.
The testimony came as Zambada was detailing how he and his brother Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada — El Chapo’s supposed partner as head of the Sinaloa Cartel — allegedly bought political protection from various arms of Mexican law enforcement. Even as El Rey dished to prosecutors on the goriest details of a violent, billion-dollar crime syndicate, the testimony grew dull at times, lulling jurors, court security officers and the occasional reporter to the point of nodding off. But when defense attorney William Purpura took the interrogator’s podium Monday afternoon, the courtroom livened up, a far cry from the highly choreographed questioning from prosecutors.
The pair occasionally traded barbs. Purpura honed in on Zambada’s detailed remembrance of certain details and forgetfulness of others, appearing to accuse Zambada of selecting anecdotes that would implicate El Chapo. At other points, he questioned the veracity of El Rey’s war stories, including one in which Zambada recalled huddling with Guzmán, AK-47 in hand, as government helicopters circled nearby. “He was calm. Alert, but calm. I felt that adrenaline rush you have in a life-and-death situation,” Zambada said, recalling the incident.
Purpura wasn’t so sure.
“Do you know what a telenovela is?” the attorney asked later, drawing laughter from the audience as he picked apart Zambada’s earlier statements. “Have you ever written for one?”
Indeed, his testimony did often sound like it could have been part of a soap opera. Zambada told the court that he, accompanied by his brother’s lawyer, had met personally with Genaro García Luna, President Calderón’s top security official. Calderón became president in 2006 and launched the country’s current drug war as one of his first acts as as president.
During testimony, Zambada said he first met with García Luna between 2005 and 2006, when he gave the $3 million in exchange for political protection for the Sinaloa Cartel’s drug operations. Zambada said that later, after Calderón appointed García Luna Secretary TO? public security, the top federal police position in the country, he delivered another sum, between $3 million and $6 million, to García Luna in exchange for protection.
Zambada also told jurors that García Luna received a whopping $50 million in bribes from the Beltrán Leyva faction of the Sinaloa Cartel in exchange for political protection. Garcia Luna could not be reached for comment, but according to the Mexican outlet El Proceso, he denied the charges made against him Tuesday.
“It is a lie, defamation and perjury to my person, that any individual, police or criminal group has given me some economic or material good at any time of my public or private performance,” Garcia Luna said, according to El Proceso.
Purpura’s line of questioning played into the defense team’s strategy of casting El Chapo as a victim of forces more powerful than himself. In opening arguments last week, defense described Guzmán as being prosecuted more for the myths surrounding him than for his actual misdeeds, and accused Zambada’s brother, El Mayo — who is still at large — of being the real power behind the throne.
When it was Purpura’s turn to cross-examine Zambada, he made an effort to call into question the former drug lord’s integrity, as well as his ability to remember specific details from events that took place more than a decade ago.
In a final round of questioning Tuesday, Purpura returned to the plea agreement Zambada had made, accusing him of using the Chapo trial as a last-ditch attempt to get a favorable sentencing.
Tuesday’s dramatic allegations of bribery came as a grand finale of four days of testimony from Zambada, who took jurors through a master class in drug smuggling, corruption, and murder conspiracies. Zambada, who by his own admission served as a top lieutenant in the Sinaloa Cartel, described in minute detail his own role in making sure that cocaine shipments arrived from Colombia and headed up toward their ultimate destinations in America.
Zambada told the court he operated warehouses in Mexico City, minded the books for the syndicate and coordinated bribes to keep the cops off their backs. But he also helped keep other cartel leaders stocked with product, including providing regular shipments of cocaine to El Chapo. This didn’t sit well with Purpura, who took it as evidence that the hierarchy, with El Mayo and El Chapo at the top and “subleaders” like Jesús Zambada lower down, did not reflect the reality of the supply chain.
During his questioning on Tuesday, , Purpura walked over to a board, where the photos of the cartel leaders were affixed with Velcro, and tore the witness’s photo of the board.
“If you’re supplying, you should be on top of him,” Purpura shouted, giving the photo a theatrical flourish as he held it above El chapo’s mugshot. “How’s that look?”
“Fine,” Zambada said, with a shrug.
The testimony painted a portrait of El chapo as a violent man, who doled out death and destruction to allies and rivals alike who crossed him, and also indulged in the classic flashiness of a drug baron with too much money, toting around a .black, 38 caliber “super pistol” with a diamond encrusted grip and engraved with Guzmán’s initials, “JGL.”
Monday’s testimony touched on the breakdown between various factions of the Sinaloa Cartel in the mid-2000s, and the bloody fallout, including the 2008 murder of a corrupt judicial police commander who also happened to be the most feared enforcer in the employ of the Beltrán Leyva clan.
According to Zambada, the hitman was well guarded, and hunkered down in his home. But no matter, the hitmen working for El Mayo and El Chapo had a plan. When the man’s son left their home for school, the killers hatched an elaborate trap, faking the sound of a car crash in the neighborhood for a dash of added realism.
“They sent a sicario to the area to step on the brakes so you could hear it, and they sent another to run to his house and tell him his son was hit. He ran out to go look for the boy, and that’s when he was killed,” Zambada.
One murder in particular stood out, though, showing the alleged petty brutality of Guzmán, as well as detailing a spark that would go on to irreparably fracture the Sinaloa Cartel into warring clans. After El Mayo brokered a 2004 peace meeting between El Chapo and his erstwhile ally Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes, Guzmán did his best to be the bigger man, and extended his hand to Carrillo Fuentes in a sign of friendship. Carrillo Fuentes spurned the handshake, storming out of the meeting, and, according to Zambada, signing his own death warrant.
“Chapo said he was going to kill him,” Zambada said.
Soon after the insult, a team of sicarios working for El Chapo gunned down Carrillo Fuentes and his wife as they left a movie theater in Culiacán, Zambada testified.
Zambada, who admitted to running drug warehouses for the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico City and testified to taking part in several conspiracies to murder enemies of El Chapo and El Mayo, is testifying against Guzmán as part of a deal with prosecutors that could get him a reduced sentence. He’s been imprisoned since Mexican authorities nabbed him in Mexico City in 2008, and was extradited to the United States in 2012. He began his testimony last Wednesday, and finally reached the end on Tuesday afternoon.
As the narco-turned-informant rose to leave the courtroom, he stood by a side door just feet from El Chapo, with his arms crossed, and nodded at Guzmán.
Guzmán responded with a curt half-nod as a United States Marshal led Zambada out.
The trial continued Tuesday afternoon with the testimony of former DEA agents, who testified about the everyday operations of the cartel, including smuggling drugs via rail cars, hollowed out SUVs and shipments disguised as cans of jalapeños, before adjourning for the rest of the week. The trial and is set to resume Monday.