The Chicago Syndicate: Highlights From the El Chapo Trial: Cocaine in Jalapeño Cans and a Tunnel From Mexico to Arizona, The Mexican Drug Lord’s U.S. Trial has Detailed the Inner Workings of his Narcotics Empire
The Mission Impossible Backpack

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Highlights From the El Chapo Trial: Cocaine in Jalapeño Cans and a Tunnel From Mexico to Arizona, The Mexican Drug Lord’s U.S. Trial has Detailed the Inner Workings of his Narcotics Empire

The trial of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the infamous Mexican drug lord, has given the public an unprecedented look inside the operations of the Sinaloa cartel. Prosecutors have trotted out dozens of witnesses, including former cartel bosses, who have described how Mr. Guzmán and his associates built a multibillion-dollar narcotics empire.

The two months of testimony in Brooklyn federal court have revealed details about how the cartel smuggled cocaine, marijuana and other illegal drugs into the U.S. using cars, trains, planes, submarines and even underground tunnels. Witnesses have described the multimilliondollar bribes paid to law enforcement and the murders carried out during wars with rival cartels.

Mr. Guzmán has pleaded not guilty to drug-trafficking, money-laundering and other charges. Getting Mr. Guzmán into a U.S. courtroom has been years in the making, after he escaped twice from maximum-security prisons in Mexico.

The trial is expected to last several more weeks. Here’s a look at some of the colorful moments that have already come out:

In the Can

In the early 1990s, Mr. Guzmán smuggled cocaine across the Tijuana border to Los Angeles inside jalapeño cans, according to the testimony of Miguel Angel Martínez, an early member of Mr. Guzmán’s crew. The cans were packaged in warehouses in Mexico using labels that imitated those of a real chile pepper company.

To make the cans sound like there were actual peppers inside when shaken by inspectors, workers packed them with a special gravel that would mimic the sound and weight of water. During the packaging, workers would often get high because pressing the cocaine into the can would release it into the air, Mr. Martínez said.

Mr. Martínez testified that the cartel stopped using this method in 1993, after a truck carrying seven tons of cocaine packed inside jalapeño cans was stopped by Mexican police.

Tunnel Effect

Mr. Guzmán impressed his Colombian suppliers because he was able to move drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border in mere days—much faster than the weeks needed by other traffickers, federal prosecutors said

In the 1980s, the cartel used an underground tunnel it dug from Agua Prieta, Mexico, to Douglas, Ariz., according to the testimony of a former U.S. customs agent. Cartel members would wheel cocaine bricks in carts from the Mexican side to the U.S., approximately 40 to 50 yards.

The Mexican entrance was covered by a pool table that lifted from the concrete floor with a hydraulic system. The entrance on the American side was located two blocks away from the U.S. customs office. The tunnel was discovered by U.S. law enforcement in 1990.

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

In describing Mr. Guzmán’s lavish lifestyle in the 1990s, Mr. Martínez told jurors that his former boss owned a ranch in Guadalajara, where he built a zoo that housed tigers, lions, panthers and deer. Guests could see the animals by riding a train that ran through the property.

Jets and Suitcases Full of Cash

In the early 1990s, Mr. Martínez’s job was to coordinate money shipments for the cartel. He testified that drug profits came back to Mexico in pickup trucks filled with cash. After the money arrived in the border city of Tijuana, it was flown in Mr. Guzmán’s private jets to Mexico City. Each jet contained $8 million to $10 million, Mr. Martínez testified.

Mr. Martínez said he wheeled a Samsonite suitcase filled with at least $10 million in drug proceeds to a Mexico City bank every week to deposit. When the bank asked if he was laundering money, he said he was exporting tomatoes.

Border Run-in

In 1989, a U.S. customs agent stopped Mr. Guzmán’s brother, Arturo, as he was trying to drive across the border in Arizona with drug proceeds in his car. His black Ford Bronco was stuffed with more than $1.2 million in cash—a record seizure at the time for any port of entry in Arizona, according to the testimony of Michael Humphries, a port director with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

An Assassination Attempt

In 1993, members of the rival Tijuana Cartel tried to assassinate Mr. Guzmán at an airport in Guadalajara, Mexico, according to multiple trial witnesses. Mr. Guzmán and his bodyguard dodged the shootout by running past baggage claim and onto the landing strips, all while carrying $600,000 in a suitcase. They kept running until they reached a highway, where they hailed a taxi.

The shootout killed Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, a beloved figure in Mexico, sparking a national manhunt for Mr. Guzmán. He was captured in Guatemala shortly after and extradited to Mexico. Mr. Guzmán escaped from a maximum-security prison there in 2001 before completing his 20-year prison sentence

Bribery at Every Level

Trial witnesses testified about the bribes paid to law-enforcement officers at every level of Mexican government. Jesús Zambada García, the cartel’s former accountant, testified under cross-examination that he paid off Genaro García Luna—head of Mexico’s equivalent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who eventually became the country’s secretary of public security—to ensure law enforcement wouldn’t interfere with the cartel’s drug activities. Mr. Zambada said that between 2005 and 2007, he met the official on two occasions at a restaurant to give him at least $3 million in a suitcase each time. Mr. García Luna has denied receiving any bribes, according to Mexican press reports.

When Mr. Guzmán was in prison the first time, his lieutenants paid approximately $30,000 to $40,000 a month in bribes to prison officials, according to Mr. Martínez. Mr. Guzmán wanted a cell phone and asked to have “intimate relationships” with all of his wives. He had four or five wives at the time, Mr. Martínez testified.

Mr. Guzmán escaped from prison in 2001 by paying off a prison worker who wheeled him out in a laundry cart.

Swiss Fountain of Youth

Mr. Martínez said he traveled the world with Mr. Guzmán, including to Macau to gamble and to seek out heroin suppliers. Mr. Guzmán also traveled to a clinic in Switzerland for cell injections to keep himself looking young, Mr. Martínez said

As gifts, he gave his employees new cars and diamond Rolex watches. Mr. Martínez said his annual salary in the early 1990s was $1 million.

The government blurred out Mr. Martínez’s face in their trial exhibit because of the death threats he has received since his arrest in 1998.

High-Tech Ducking

To avoid law-enforcement detection, Mr. Guzmán sent engineers to the U.S. to buy the latest high-tech phone equipment, including scramblers and wiretapping gear, a former employee testified.

He “cloned” other people’s phone numbers when making calls, changed those cloned numbers every three or four days, and wiretapped enemies, friends and girlfriends. Mr. Martínez said the wiretaps were critical to keeping Mr. Guzmán informed about his employees’ whereabouts, including attempts by anyone to betray him.

The cartel also bought machines from the U.S. and Europe to manufacture fake passports and IDs, including fake police credentials

Sunken Ships

Cocaine was often transported from Colombia to Mexico by sea, including by submarine, before being smuggled into the U.S. A submarine was seized by the U.S. Coast Guard in 2008 as it was carrying cocaine for the Sinaloa cartel.

In 1994, a large shipping vessel was carrying 20 tons of cocaine to the cartel. The crew thought the shipment would be intercepted by law enforcement and sank the vessel off the Mexican coast, according to the cartel’s former accountant. The cartel then used deep-sea divers to recover the cocaine.

Hiding the Money

To stash his cash, Mr. Guzmán hired an architect to build houses with hydraulic systems that lifted the beds from the floor to reveal hidden compartments, according to a former cartel member. At one house, the bed covered a ladder that led to a safe inside an underground water tank. The water had to be pumped out to access the special compartment.

Thanks to Nicole Hong.

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