The trial of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán took yet another dramatic turn this week when federal prosecutors called one of their star witnesses to the stand. The witness testified about smuggling 400,000 kilos of cocaine into the United States. He described paying huge bribes to police and military officials. And he told the jury about ordering 150 murders.
The testimony was riveting, but there was a hitch: Those crimes were not committed by El Chapo or members of the Sinaloa cartel. They were the handiwork of the witness himself, Juan Carlos Ramírez Abadía, a leader of Colombia’s feared Norte del Valle cartel better known by his nickname Chupeta, or Lollipop.
Chupeta is one of 16 cooperating witnesses expected to testify against El Chapo in a Brooklyn federal court. They’re all former high-level drug traffickers who've cut deals with the government in exchange for leniency in their own cases. Chupeta has admitted that he was El Chapo’s primary cocaine supplier in Colombia, and the case will likely hinge on whether the jury buys testimony from him and the other cooperators. But listening closely to what Chupeta and two others have said in just the first nine days of the trial, it’s hard not to wonder: What’s the point?
Meet the "Lollipop"
Chupeta was at the very top of the drug food chain — Chapo was essentially a glorified middleman who helped move literal tons of his cocaine from Colombia to the U.S. But in order to put away El Chapo, who’s infinitely more famous, the U.S. government is willing to let Chupeta out of prison early. El Chapo faces life. With credit for time already served since his 2008 extradition, 55-year-old Chupeta could be free in a little over a decade.
On Saturday, Mexico will inaugurate a new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who was elected on a pledge to end the country’s militarized drug war. But already, AMLO, as he’s known for short, has reversed course and announced a plan to keep soldiers deployed on the front lines of Mexico’s drug war for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the DEA under Trump is doubling down on its strategy of targeting kingpins, which has failed for decades to stop the flow of drugs or reduce violence.
Against this backdrop, El Chapo’s trial is exposing the utter futility of fighting the war on drugs. Chupeta and other witnesses have described how easy it was for them to smuggle drugs into the U.S. despite billions of dollars spent on counter-narcotics operations. The DEA’s 2018 Drug Threat Assessment notes that “cocaine availability and use in the United States have rebounded,” and fatal overdoses are at an all-time high.
Law enforcement witnesses have testified in El Chapo’s trial about seizing tens of thousands of kilos of cocaine — even producing several bricks for the jury to examine — but even with these successes, there was never a shortage of blow on the streets of the U.S. The kingpins keep getting killed or captured, the drug shipments keep getting busted, but nothing changes.
Chupeta’s testimony was especially illuminating. Jurors were rapt as the Colombian drug lord, who underwent extensive plastic surgery to alter his appearance when he was a fugitive, described his rise through the cartel ranks. The surgeries gave him a bizarre appearance: The skin on his face was smooth and shiny and stretched tightly over his pronounced jaw and cheekbones. His gray hair was slicked back on his head, and he was almost unrecognizable from photos taken before his 2007 capture in Brazil, where he’d been hiding out in a São Paulo mansion with his bodybuilder boyfriend.
The rise of El Chapo
Chupeta said he began his career in the late ’80s as a member of the Cali cartel, visiting the U.S. to oversee large shipments of cocaine moving from Los Angeles to New York. As the Cali cartel collapsed in the early ’90s, Chupeta formed the Norte del Valle cartel and made inroads with El Chapo and other Mexican drug traffickers, who were exploiting their country’s porous 3,500-mile border with the U.S. to supply American drug consumers with their favorite illicit substances.
“He said, 'I'm a lot faster. Try me and you'll see.'”
Chupeta described how he first met El Chapo in 1990 in the lobby of a hotel in Mexico City. El Chapo had a sales pitch. Normally at that time, Colombian cocaine suppliers paid their Mexican counterparts with product. Chapo wanted to charge 40 percent, meaning if they shipped a thousand kilos, El Chapo would get to keep 400 for himself and deliver the rest to Chupeta's people in the U.S. Other Mexicans at the time were charging 37 percent. El Chapo assured Chupeta that his higher rate would be worth the cost.
“He said, 'I'm a lot faster. Try me and you'll see. And your planes and your cocaine and pilots are going to be secure, because I have very good arrangements,'" Chupeta said. He then went on to explain El Chapo’s special “arrangements.”
"When the planes arrive to the Mexican airstrips, they were being protected by the federal police,” he said. “They were receiving the planes and my cocaine, and on many occasions they were doing the transportation themselves."
El Chapo was true to his word, Chupeta said. His first cocaine shipment made it from Mexico to Los Angeles in record time. "It was super quick,” he said. “I recall it was less than a week. That was the first time one of the Mexican traffickers delivered the cocaine to me that quickly."
Benefitting from corruption
El Chapo clearly benefited from endemic corruption in Mexico, but that wasn’t the only key to his success. He also built a tunnel underneath the border in Arizona — an elaborate affair with the entrance on the Mexican side concealed under a pool table that would raise up to the ceiling with a hydraulic lift.
Later, after the tunnel was discovered by U.S. authorities, witnesses testified that El Chapo began smuggling cocaine hidden in cans of pickled jalapeños. Chupeta said his workers pressed the cocaine into special cylindrical bricks to fit inside the jalapeño cans. El Chapo stopped using that method when law enforcement caught on and seized more than seven tons of cocaine stashed in a shipment of jalapeños. Still, the cocaine kept coming.
President Trump has made securing the border one of his administration’s top priorities, but the smuggling methods that El Chapo pioneered in the early ’90s are still just as effective today. In August, U.S. authorities discovered a 590-foot drug tunnel that stretched from Mexico to an abandoned KFC restaurant on the Arizona side of the border. Another El Chapo lieutenant has described how easy it was to move cocaine into the U.S. by using cars and semitrucks with secret compartments. Even with advanced scanners and other technology at border checkpoints, drugs are still crossing with ease, hidden in vehicles.
Chupeta and the other witnesses have also detailed the endemic corruption in both Mexico and Colombia that has allowed the drug trade to flourish. The jury has so far been blocked from hearing about $6 million in bribes that one of El Chapo’s lawyers has claimed were accepted by the “now incumbent president of Mexico,” but there has been plenty testimony about other corrupt elected officials, police commanders, and military leaders. It’s safe to say that the corruption didn’t end with El Chapo’s arrest.
On the first day of El Chapo’s trial, his lawyer Jeffrey Lichtman told the jury that the government would build its case using testimony from cooperating witnesses like Chupeta. He said that despite the capture of El Chapo, “the flow of drugs never slowed down.” And he said that the trial would be set against the backdrop of “the American war on drugs.”
So far, he’s been proven right.
Cover: This undated photo provided by the U.S. Attorney's Office shows a diamond-encrusted pistol that a government witness said belonged to infamous Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, at Guzman's trial in New York, Monday, Nov. 19, 2018. Jurors were shown a photo of the pistol decorated with Guzman's initials as witness Jesus Zambada told how Guzman relied on rampant bloodshed and bribery to protect his multibillion-dollar drug smuggling operation and the brutal way Guzman's Sinaloa cartel dealt with various violent threats and personal slights. (U.S. Attorney's Office via AP)