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BROOKLYN — A former associate of Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán testified Tuesday that the drug kingpin paid a $100 million bribe to former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, a claim met with audible gasps inside the federal courtroom in Brooklyn.
Alex Cifuentes, who described himself on the witness stand as Chapo’s personal secretary in the late 2000s, made the allegation when asked by Chapo’s lawyer about his involvement in efforts to corrupt high-ranking Mexican government officials. The questions during the cross examination focused on past statements made by Cifuentes to U.S. law enforcement.
According to Chapo’s attorney Jeffrey Lichtman, Cifuentes initially told U.S. authorities that Peña Nieto requested $250 million. In a subsequent meeting, in April 2016, Cifuentes claimed that a woman identified as Comadre Maria delivered a bribe of $100 million to Peña Nieto on behalf of Chapo in October 2012.
There was some confusion about the testimony on Tuesday because Lichtman, while pressing Cifuentes on his inconsistent statements, initially misspoke. He asked Cifuentes whether he told U.S. law enforcement about a bribe of $250 dollars, later correcting himself by saying the past statement by Cifuentes was about a request for $250 million from Peña Nieto.
Cifuentes seized the opportunity. “That mistake you made is the mistake I made in my first debriefing,” he said. Cifuentes added that he was certain that there was a bribe of $100 million. “It’s clear to me,” he said. When Lichtman asked how he could be sure, Cifuentes replied, “Joaquín told me.”
Peña Nieto vehemently denied a corruption allegation that emerged earlier in Chapo’s trial, which is now in its ninth week. In his opening statement, Lichtman told the jury that another Sinaloa cartel leader, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, paid “hundreds of millions in bribes” to Mexican politicians, “including up to the very top — the current president of Mexico.”
A spokesperson for Peña Nieto, who was in office at the time but has since been replaced by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, called Lichtman’s claim during his opening statement “completely false and defamatory,” and noted that his administration captured Chapo and extradited him to the United States.
Cifuentes offered no evidence to back up his claims, but he was in a position to know cartel secrets. The 50-year-old Colombian lived with Chapo in the mountains of Sinaloa for several years starting in 2007, and Cifuentes said he became so close to the kingpin he was both Chapo’s “right-hand man and his left-hand man.”
Lichtman grilled Cifuentes for nearly a full day, often probing on topics that seemed to incriminate Chapo more than exonerate him, like when the defense attorney asked about payments that were allegedly made to JJ Rendón, a political consultant.
According to Lichtman, in the April 2016 debriefing Cifuentes said that a cartel operative named Andrea Velez-Fernandez sent him “pictures of suitcases filled with cash” from Rendón’s personal plane. (Velez-Fernandez has been a recurring figure during El Chapo’s trial in recent weeks. Cifuentes has described her as his personal secretary and said she was involved in arranging drug shipments. Velez-Fernandez later became an informant for the FBI, according to a special agent who testified last week.)
Cifuentes acknowledged receiving the photos, but said they were taken in Mexico City, not on the plane. Lichtman said that Cifuentes had claimed previously that “those suitcases full of cash were destined for President Peña Nieto.” Cifuentes disputed that claim Tuesday. “I wouldn't be able to tell you,” he said in reference to who received the suitcases.
Lichtman also referred to a November 2017 debriefing in which Cifuentes told U.S law enforcement “that the president of Mexico had contacted Mr. Guzmán,” and that “the message was Mr. Guzmán didn’t have to stay hidden.”
“That’s exactly what Mr. Guzmán said to me,” Cifuentes testified. “They wanted to work with him.”
Peña Nieto wasn’t the only Mexican president accused of corruption by Cifuentes. Lichtman asked about a debriefing in February 2016 when Cifuentes told U.S. authorities that former Mexican President Felipe Calderón accepted bribes from the Beltrán-Leyva organization “for protection” against El Chapo and the Sinaloa cartel during a conflict between the rival groups. Lichtman was referring to notes from the debriefing, and Cifuentes responded by saying, “I would like to see that document.”
When Lichtman showed him the notes, Cifuentes said, “Right now, I do not remember that.” Asked whether it was true, Cifuentes said the Beltrán-Leyvas “did send their army against Mr. Guzmán,” but it was unclear whether he was referring to cartel hitmen or Mexican soldiers.
Cifuentes had denied earlier in his testimony that the Mexican military was corrupt, but when pressed by Lichtman, he claimed that Chapo had a military “captain” and “special forces” on the cartel payroll. Lichtman then described past statements by Cifuentes in which he claimed that military members would provide Chapo with the phone numbers of Beltrán-Leyva operatives.
According to Lichtman, Cifuentes had claimed that Chapo would trace the phones and provide the coordinates of the device to soldiers, who would then use the informant to kill or capture Beltrán-Leyva members. Lichtman asked whether it was true that the military received $10-12 million for this service, as Cifuentes had claimed previously.
“Those are the amounts I would hear, yes sir,” Cifuentes said.
Lichtman also asked Cifuentes about a previous statement to U.S. authorities in which he said the Mexican federal police would “traffic drugs” with Beltrán-Leyvas. Cifuentes replied “it was possible” he had said that, and went on to detail a similar arrangement he said the Sinaloa cartel had with the federal police.
Cifuentes said he and his wife were authorized by El Chapo “to import cocaine from Argentina.” Lichtman described a past statement in which Cifuentes claimed Mexican federal police would retrieve “suitcases loaded with cocaine” arriving from Argentina, from an airport baggage claim.
“The police were actually the customers of the drug traffickers?” Lichtman asked.
“Si señor,” Cifuentes replied.
“The police also did this for another trafficker named Barbie?” Lichtman asked again, using the nickname for notorious cartel figure Edgar Valdez Villarreal.
“Si señor,” Cifuentes answered again.
Cifuentes has regaled the jury with tales about his life in the mountains with Chapo and described involvement in nearly every facet of the Sinaloa cartel’s business. Cifuentes said he was responsible for coordinating drug shipments across the Western Hemisphere, smuggling cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine into the U.S. and Canada, and funneling tens of millions in proceeds back to Mexico and Colombia.
Cifuentes was arrested by Mexican authorities in November 2013 and extradited to the U.S. three years later. He has pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges and is testifying against his former boss in hopes of receiving a reduced sentence. His older brother Jorge Cifuentes, who led the family’s drug trafficking organization, is also in U.S. custody and testified against Chapo earlier in the trial.
The Cifuentes brothers are two of more than a dozen cooperating witnesses expected to take the stand during the trial, which is on pace to conclude in late January or early February. Multiple cooperators have described pervasive corruption in Mexico, including among top military generals, high-ranking police commanders, federal police officers, the attorney general’s office, and nearly every level of law enforcement. Vicente Zambada testified last week his father El Mayo and El Chapo paid at least $1 million in bribes per month.
Jesús “El Rey” Zambada — El Mayo’s younger brother, who was called to testify against El Chapo in exchange for a reduced sentence — claimed that the Sinaloa cartel delivered $50 million in bribes to Genaro García Luna, a former secretary of public security under the Calderón administration. García Luna called Zambada’s testimony “a lie.”
Calderón, who deployed the military in a bloody campaign against Mexico’s drug cartels, called allegations that he accepted payoffs from Chapo “absolutely false and reckless," adding, “neither he, nor the Sinaloa cartel, nor anyone else made payments to me."
Arrest data indicates that Mexico’s public security forces under Calderón may have favored the Sinaloa cartel over rival groups, but Calderón rejected that assertion when asked about it during an interview with VICE News earlier this year.
“We've fought against all the cartels,” Calderón said. “We established a clear rule of no agreements with anyone — [that was] completely forbidden in my administration.”
Despite the adamant denials, the latest testimony by Cifuentes will surely fuel suspicions that much of the Mexican government is susceptible to narco-corruption. Lopez Obrador, who took office on Dec. 1, has floated the idea of pardoning corrupt government officials, a proposal that has been met with outrage in a country where impunity reigns.
Cover: El Chapo, left, with Alex Cifuentes, in a photo provided by the U.S. Attorney's Office.