On the first day of alleged drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s trial in Brooklyn, jurors were told that the real mastermind behind the Sinaloa cartel was Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, another longtime kingpin who remains free in Mexico.
On the second day, El Mayo’s brother took the stand to testify against El Chapo. He told a different story about the relationship: “They were partners.”
El Mayo’s younger brother Jesus Zambada Garcia, nicknamed El Rey or The King, was the first of 16 cooperating witnesses expected to be called to testify in the trial, which kicked off Tuesday at the federal courthouse in Brooklyn.
The case against El Chapo is expected to hinge on the testimony of cooperators who have cut deals with the government, and El Rey is in a unique position to divulge the Sinaloa cartel’s inner workings. He spoke for nearly three hours on Wednesday, laying out in painstaking detail how his brother El Mayo, El Chapo, and other leaders worked together to import tons of cocaine from Colombia to Mexico and smuggle it into the United States.
El Rey, who was arrested in Mexico in 2008 and extradited to New York in 2012, took the stand wearing a jail uniform: a blue smock with orange long johns underneath. He looked to be in his early 60s, with close-cropped gray hair, stubble on his cheeks, and eyeglasses propped on the bridge of his nose. He spoke matter-of-factly about his drug trafficking exploits, and the testimony often felt carefully choreographed.
Asked by federal prosecutor Gina Parlovecchio to describe the arrangement between his brother and El Chapo, El Rey replied, “It was a working relationship, a partnership for the importation of cocaine, drug trafficking.”
El Rey said he joined the Sinaloa cartel in 1987, when he “established an accounting system for collecting payments from cocaine clients in the U.S.” He worked his way up the ranks and eventually controlled a warehouse in Mexico City that imported 80-100 tons of cocaine per year, “100 percent” of which he said was shipped across the border to the United States.
“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 testified.
El Rey testified that he met El Chapo in 2001, shortly after the Sinaloa cartel leader’s first escape from prison in Mexico. El Rey said El Chapo was about to be recaptured by the Mexican military, so he and El Mayo swooped in to rescue him with a helicopter.
For most of the testimony, which was delivered in Spanish and relayed to the court through a translator, El Chapo, who was wearing a suit and tie, sat stone-faced at the defense table. During a mid-afternoon break, the two men stared momentarily at each other and El Chapo gave his former associate a brief nod. Later in the afternoon, as El Rey explained the cocaine business, El Chapo rocked in his seat and clenched his fist in front of his face.
El Rey testified that in the ‘90s he imported cocaine to Mexico City through the resort city of Cancún. He said he paid off the Mexican Attorney General’s Office and the Federal Highway Police to guard the shipments as they were transported over land, usually hidden inside gas tankers owned by his brother. El Chapo and other cartel leaders would work together to smuggle the drugs, he said.
“Everything is always shared among the members of the cartel when one or the other would need it,” El Rey testified.
He explained how a kilo of cocaine could be purchased for $3,000 per kilo in Colombia and sold for $35,000 in New York. Cartel leaders would often partner on shipments of up to 30 tons of cocaine, an arrangement that could net each investor $48 million. El Rey said he personally invested in a shipment that was over 2.5 tons, while El Mayo and El Chapo would regular go half and half on 6-ton shipments.
He detailed the hierarchical structure of the cartel, explaining that El Mayo, El Chapo, and a handful of other leaders sat on top, controlling sub-leaders, workers, and corrupt government officials. They pooled resources and shared smuggling routes north through Mexico, and told the jury that at its peak in the 90s the cartel controlled nearly every key border crossing into the United States.
El Rey said the last time he spoke to El Chapo was 2008, when his brother was visiting in Mexico City. The testimony ended for the day with the prosecution still questioning the witness. He’s expected to return to the stand Thursday.
Cover: In this Jan. 8, 2016 file photo, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is made to face the press as he is escorted to a helicopter in handcuffs by Mexican soldiers and marines at a federal hangar in Mexico City, Mexico. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte, File)