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There was a moment in court this week when it felt like Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was no longer the one on trial. It came when a former Colombian drug kingpin known as Chupeta (or, Lollipop) was under cross-examination from the defense. After two days of dramatic testimony, Chupeta was getting grilled about his own criminal exploits, including murders he ordered hitmen to commit in the U.S.
Chupeta, whose real name is Juan Carlos Ramírez Abadía, had kept meticulous ledgers detailing business expenses incurred by his Norte del Valle cartel. The records indicated that he’d paid for at least 150 killings. One of El Chapo’s lawyers, William Purpura, asked if that number was accurate. Chupeta replied that he couldn’t recall.
“That could be the case,” he said. “I haven’t counted them, but it’s possible.”
Purpura then went for the jugular, reminding the jury that Chupeta had a plea deal that would allow him to be released after 25 years, an arrangement made possible by his cooperation against El Chapo. Purpura noted that sentence worked out to just “60 days per murder.” The prosecution objected before Chupeta could respond, but the point was already made.
As the fourth week of El Chapo’s trial comes to a close, it’s more obvious than ever that the case hinges on testimony by cooperators like Chupeta. Four have already been called to testify, and the prosecution is expected to put a dozen others on the stand before it’s all over. Not all of them are as cold-blooded as Chupeta, but they’re still former high-level members of Mexican and Colombian cartels involved in murders, money laundering, and drug smuggling — the very crimes that El Chapo is accused of committing.
“Many times I would stash it so that way the price would go up because there would be less cocaine in the streets. Then I would put my cocaine out and have bigger profits.”
El Chapo’s trial has put a spotlight on a dark truth about the American justice system’s wheeling and dealing with the worst of the worst. Jury trials are rare — over 90 percent of federal criminal cases end with a plea agreement. That’s especially true for cartel leaders. El Chapo is the first kingpin extradited from Mexico who has refused to cut a deal, and now the Justice Department appears to be using his trial to justify the reduced sentences promised to those who have been willing to bargain. One who was called testify this week has yet to serve a single day in jail.
The remaining cooperators against El Chapo include several witnesses the defense has described as “degenerates” and “people who will make your skin crawl.” Among them, Dámaso López (aka El Licenciado), who orchestrated El Chapo’s escape from prison in 2001. López’s son, El Mini Lic, who is suspected of ordering the murder of a prominent Mexican journalist, could also take the stand.
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And then there’s Vicente Zambada, the son of El Chapo’s partner in the Sinaloa cartel. He struck a plea deal with the government in 2014 and has been cooperating ever since. As part of his case, he said that the DEA had a deal dating back to 2000 that allowed te Sinaloa cartel to operate and get charges against top members dismissed in exchange for providing information about rival groups. In announcing Zambada’s plea deal, the government noted he was “aware that the cartel used violence and made credible threats of violence to rival cartels and to law enforcement in Mexico.”
Chupeta is perhaps the most egregious cooperating witness. When he was still a fugitive in South America, he underwent a series of plastic surgeries — including alterations to his nose, chin, cheekbones, scalp, lips, and eyes — to disguise his appearance. The result is a grotesque facsimile of a face that made him look like a cartoon villain on the witness stand.
Under cross-examination by El Chapo’s defense, Chupeta admitted to ordering the execution of his cartel business associate Vladimir Biegelman, who was assassinated in Brooklyn in 1993. The following year, Chupeta’s hitmen killed a couple and their adult son in Fort Lee, New Jersey, because they were suspected of informing or stealing from one of his organization’s stash houses in the area. A third woman in the New York City area later suffered the same fate.
Chupeta’s most gruesome killings occurred in his native Colombia. El Chapo’s defense told the jury that the man testifying against their client was known to work with a Colombian hitman who favored a “ motosierra” — a chainsaw — as his instrument of choice for dismembering victims. Chupeta admitted that he once lured a rival cartel boss to a business meeting, where gunmen killed him and a dozen of his bodyguards, then ambushed another group of bodyguards waiting nearby.
Chupeta didn’t admit to poisoning one of his lieutenants to prevent the man from being extradited to the U.S., but he did acknowledge that many secrets about his organization conveniently died with his former right-hand man. He acknowledged ordering the deaths of two female Colombian police officers who were investigating him because the cartel had killed one of their brothers. He also personally shot a man in the face at close range in 2004.
Despite being a mass murderer, there were moments when Chupeta actually managed to come across as charming. He said that after serving in the Colombian navy, he came to the U.S. to study English and engineering at the University of Miami in the 1980s. Of course, he added with a wry smile, “I was also trying to sell cocaine.”
“We had control over these people. We knew where they lived, so they would be responsible if something was lost.”
Cocaine turned out to be Chupeta’s calling. He testified that he moved over 40,000 tons of the drug into the U.S. over the years, usually in concert with the Sinaloa cartel. They used a dizzying array of smuggling methods: planes, tunnels, trains, tractor trailers, fishing boats, speed boats, and cars with hidden compartments. He took credit for being the first Colombian trafficker to use a submarine to send a load of cocaine to Mexico. He even claimed that he directly influenced the price of cocaine in New York City.
“Many times I would stash it so that way the price would go up because there would be less cocaine in the streets,” he said. “Then I would put my cocaine out and have bigger profits.”
He seemed to pride himself on his acumen for the drug business. He always referred to his merchandise as “my cocaine” and boasted that his product was “always of optimum quality.” He testified that he started working with El Chapo in the early ‘90s “because at that time he was the best and the quickest” at crossing loads over the border into the U.S.
Chupeta also excelled at bribery. His testimony detailed how he paid-off Colombia’s legislature and president to avoid being extradited to the United States. He even corrupted an elite Colombian police unit that the DEA specially trained and vetted. The members of that squad — known as the Sensitive Investigative Unit or SIU — then hosted cartel-funded "sex parties" at brothels that were attended by DEA agents in Colombia.
Another witness called to testify this week, Germán Rosero, Chupeta’s trusted lieutenant in Mexico, described being flown into the mountains to meet with El Chapo at his hideouts in Sinaloa. On one occasion, Chapo had a gold-plated AK-47 with “some precious stones encrusted in it,” Rosero said. The two discussed business and coordinated multi-ton shipments of cocaine. The deals were so good that El Chapo asked to be named godfather to one of Rosero’s children.
Rosero was also in charge of smuggling drug money from Mexico to Colombia. For this task, Chapo bragged about having a small airplane “made of carbon fiber, which made it undetectable by radar,” Rosero testified. Normally, however, they used bajadores, people who would carry up to $5 million cash at a time.
“We had control over these people,” Rosero said. “We knew where they lived, so they would be responsible if something was lost.”
When a war broke out in 2007 between El Chapo and his partners the Beltrán-Leyva brothers, Rosero became worried about getting killed and made plans to surrender to the DEA. Thinking he was already under indictment, he traveled to Miami in June 2009 and turned himself in, only to realize he hadn’t yet been charged with a crime.
Rosero was eventually indicted for conspiracy, drug smuggling, and money laundering and pleaded guilty. He’s facing a minimum of 10 years in federal prison, but under his cooperation agreement, he has yet to spend any time behind bars. He also got to keep $550,000 in cash, along with properties in Mexico and Colombia valued at over $1 million.
Rosero was never directly accused of violence. But even when El Chapo’s defense focused on Chupeta’s bloody background, the prosecution did its best to convince the jury that his actions were just business as usual. Nevermind that El Chapo is on trial for similar crimes.
After the defense was done grilling Chupeta about his murders, a prosecutor asked the Colombian kingpin whether violence “was an unavoidable part of leading a drug cartel.” He responded that the two go “hand in hand.”
Cover image: Military officers escort alleged drug trafficker Vicente Zambada during his presentation to the media in Mexico City, on March 19, 2009. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo, File)