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BROOKLYN, New York — First he accused El Chapo of paying a $100 million bribe to the former president of Mexico.
Then prosecutors said he paid to have young girls sent to Chapo’s hideout in the mountains of Sinaloa, where they were sedated with a “powdery substance” and raped.
But the jury only heard half of his story.
Alex Cifuentes was a key witness in the trial of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, and the jury — entering a fifth day of deliberations at the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn Monday — has asked to review all of the testimony from him and his older brother Jorge before delivering a verdict.
But while the testimony could soon put El Chapo behind bars for life, records unsealed at the request of VICE News and the New York Times make it clear that the jury was not allowed to hear some key details about the younger Cifuentes, who spent six years starting in the mid-2000s working as Chapo’s chief deputy, handling both business and personal affairs.
The scion of a prolific Colombian cocaine trafficking family, the 51-year-old Cifuentes was a damaging witness who gave the jury an intimate look at Chapo’s drug empire. He made some sensational allegations, such as that Mexico’s former president Enrique Peña Nieto hit up El Chapo for a $250 million bribe and accepted the drug lord’s counteroffer of $100 million, delivered by a person named “Comadre Maria.” (A spokesman for Peña Nieto called the allegation “false, defamatory, and absurd.”)
But the jurors — and public — may have viewed his claims differently if they’d known he was interested “in the Illuminati, Freemasonry, other planets, other galaxies, UFOs and the idea that there was an impending apocalypse in 2012.”
Those details about Cifuentes were revealed Feb. 2 — the eve of jury deliberations beginning — when prosecutors unsealed a pre-trial motion about Cifuentes and other witnesses. The documents (see PDF below), made public under the order of Judge Brian Cogan after requests from VICE News and the New York Times, contained disturbing revelations about alleged pedophilia and child rape committed by Chapo and Cifuentes.
Cifuentes, identified as CW1 in the documents, claimed that “Comadre Maria” — possibly the same person who delivered the alleged bribe to Peña Nieto — would “regularly send photographs of girls as young as thirteen” to Chapo. For $5,000, Chapo “could have the girl of his choice” brought to his ranch “for sexual intercourse.” Cifuentes admitted that he “availed himself of this service on 3-4 occasions” with 15-year-old girls, and saw Chapo “do the same on multiple occasions” with 13-year-olds. The document states other cooperating witnesses corroborated the claims about Chapo.
Cifuentes said he drugged the girls for Chapo “by placing a powdery substance into their drinks.” Chapo allegedly “called the youngest of the girls his ‘vitamins’ because he believed that sexual activity with young girls gave him ‘life.’”
The claims were shocking, even within the context of Chapo's trial, but the jury heard none of it.
Prosecutors argued that the sex allegations were “unfairly prejudicial” and “not relevant” because they had nothing to do with the drug trafficking charges against Chapo. Cifuentes’ “unorthodox interests and beliefs” were also deemed “not relevant” to the case. Prosecutors claimed his belief in conspiracy theories, which he gleaned from “internet videos and the Discovery Channel,” had no impact on his “veracity and credibility.”
Chapo’s alleged sex crimes against children made big headlines, but while the rest of the world heard the story, the jury was supposed to remain in the dark. Judge Cogan routinely ordered the jurors to avoid reading about the case. If enough of them heard the news, it would be cause for a mistrial. Cogan met privately with each juror and reported that only one saw “something” but said it would be possible to evaluate the case solely on the evidence from the courtroom.
Chapo was already known to be a prodigious philanderer, and there were some reports that he had a predilection for younger women, but the new details stripped away illusions about the depths of his evil. While to many, he was already seen as a sociopath responsible for death, destruction, and drug addiction in the U.S. and Mexico, the unsealed documents about Cifuentes likely marred any glamour that Chapo’s legend still carried.
Chapo’s lawyer, Eduardo Balarezo, denied the allegations by Cifuentes, saying they “lack any corroboration and were deemed too prejudicial and unreliable to be admitted at trial.” He called the timing of the release before jury deliberations “unfortunate.”
Cifuentes’ attorney declined to comment.
Despite widespread coverage of the two most shocking claims by Cifuentes, relatively little attention has been paid to his unreliability as a witness. Another Chapo lawyer, Jeffrey Lichtman, grilled Cifuentes on cross-examination. Cifuentes suffers from a variety of health problems, including having undergone a double cornea transplant in his eyes, and he lifted his chin and gazed down his nose at Lichtman as he spoke, often sneering in his responses.
In one exchange, Cifuentes admitted to lying to nearly everyone in his life, from business associates to family members. Lichtman then asked about Chapo: "Is he the only person you didn't lie about?"
"That's correct," Cifuentes replied.
The Cifuentes brothers were key figures in Chapo’s trial. The family’s story is sprawling and bizarre, and it stretches back to the early days of Colombian cocaine trafficking. One of the brothers was a pilot for Pablo Escobar, and a sister married into the Fabio Ochoa family, which co-founded the Medellín cartel. Alex testified that he began working in the drug business at age 11, when he helped his father dry coca leaves to be processed into cocaine. Escobar’s right-hand man used to hang out at the building where their mother lived, and Alex testified he would go bowling with the kingpin’s bodyguards. But he wasn’t just a thug — his family sent him to England to study and learn the language.
Led by Alex’s older brother Francisco “Pacho” Cifuentes, the family accrued power in the Colombian underworld throughout the ’90s and 2000s by killing off rivals and bankrolling a paramilitary group that controlled cocaine production. Nearly all of Alex’s relatives were involved in the drug business, to the point where the U.S. Treasury Department’s organizational chart of their cartel basically doubles as a family tree.
Alex testified that he first met Chapo in 2002, when his brother sent him to Mexico to negotiate the shipment of 5,000 kilos of cocaine. After Pacho was murdered in 2007, Jorge and Alex negotiated a partnership with Chapo. While Jorge arranged for cocaine to move from Ecuador and Colombia to Mexico, Alex would stay with Chapo in Sinaloa to ensure everything ran smoothly.
Alex testified that he became an integral part of Chapo's business. He coordinated cocaine shipments, purchased farms to transit drugs in Costa Rica and Honduras, procured chemicals to make meth, smuggled drugs to Canada, and acquired heavy weapons for the cartel. Alex also was involved in setting up an encrypted phone network for Chapo, which was later wiretapped when a systems engineer who worked for the Cifuentes family became an informant for the FBI. Cifuentes was captured in 2013 and later extradited to the U.S. He pleaded guilty to a drug conspiracy charge last year, and he faces a maximum of life in prison. He testified against Chapo in hopes of receiving a reduced sentence.
While the jury heard about plenty of criminal acts that involved Alex Cifuentes, several key details about his life were left out because prosecutors convinced Judge Cogan they were not relevant. According to the unsealed documents, in 1986 he was speeding down the highway in Colombia when he struck and killed a 10-year-old girl. The Cifuentes family paid “a large settlement” to make the case go away.
Another incident in 1994 involved Cifuentes and a friend trying to set fire to a discotheque because a bouncer turned them away for being too drunk. And in 2009, according to the unsealed court document, Cifuentes told his then-girlfriend, who is now his wife, that “she should consider herself dead” if she got an abortion.
Judge Cogan tried from the outset to limit testimony in the case to issues directly related to Chapo’s guilt or innocence on drug trafficking charges. Beyond the personal matters of Alex Cifuentes, he also restricted questions about high-level corruption in the Mexican government. It was only on cross-examination that Lichtman was able to ask Cifuentes about the alleged $100 million bribe to Peña Nieto. The defense wanted the information on the record because Cifuentes had changed his story when speaking to U.S. authorities before the trial. On several occasions, Cifuentes said the payment was for $100 million, but he later claimed he couldn’t remember the exact amount.
With information about Cifuentes’ bizarre beliefs and other bad behavior now public, there’s seemingly even more reason to be skeptical of his testimony. But as the jury reviews the transcripts of Cifuentes’ testimony in the push to reach a verdict against El Chapo, they likely lack that perspective. Lichtman and the defense pushed for the jury to get the full picture, but Judge Cogan erred on the side of narrowing the focus.
At one point, as Lichtman argued that he ought to be able to question Cifuentes about the presidential bribes, the judge stopped him short.
“I don't think any of that matters,” Cogan said.
Cover: Undated pic of Chapo, Alex Cifuentes, and an unidentified woman in the mountains of Sinaloa. (via US Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York).