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Explosive testimony at El Chapo’s trial tells new history of the Sinaloa cartel

The brother of Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada testified about a pair of high-profile murders and El Chapo's first prison break.

by Keegan Hamilton
Nov 15 2018, 11:41pm

It’s only day three of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s trial, but witness testimony has already turned much of the drug kingpin's myth on its head.

Earlier in the week, government witness Jesus “El Rey” Zambada provided explosive allegations about corruption in Mexico and an inside look at how the Sinaloa cartel operate. Today, he offered fresh revelations about El Chapo’s first escape from prison, the assassination of a top Catholic Church official, and the murder of a rival cartel leader.

El Rey, the younger brother of El Chapo’s longtime partner in the Sinaloa cartel, returned to the witness stand on Thursday to be questioned by federal prosecutors. In more than four hours of testimony, he described how his brother, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada banded together with El Chapo and others to form the Sinaloa cartel, wage war with rival groups, and smuggle tons of cocaine, heroin, meth, and marijuana to the U.S.

El Rey rocked back and forth in a chair and stroked his chin as he casually recounted his brother’s relationship and business dealings with El Chapo, who was staring him down from across the courtroom, dressed in a blue suit, crisp white shirt, and navy blue tie. The testimony was often riveting, and it essentially rewrote key parts of the El Chapo legend and the history of the Sinaloa cartel.

El Chapo’s early years in the drug trade and the loose partnership between traffickers that formed the basis of the Sinaloa cartel was the subject of the latest episode of our VICE News podcast “Chapo: Kingpin on Trial.”

Here's what we learned today in court and how it relates to our reporting.

The War

El Rey’s most dramatic testimony covered the war that broke out between El Chapo and the leaders of the Tijuana cartel in the late 1980s and extended all the way through the early 2000s. El Rey said the Tijuana cartel, led by brothers Benjamin and Ramon Arellano-Felix, started the conflict by refusing to share their territory.

“The Arellano-Felix’s thought they were the kings, the rulers of Tijuana,” he said. “They didn’t want anyone crossing drugs without their authorization.”

The dispute led to El Mayo splitting with the Tijuana cartel and joining forces with El Chapo and other leaders. After that, hitmen working for the Arellano-Felix brothers came looking for El Rey, trying to kill him at his house in Mexico City.

“One day when I was buying something at the store, some sicarios intercepted me and they shot at me from a distance,” he said. “They grazed my head. I fell to the floor and fortunately I wasn’t left unconscious. I jumped back up and with my pistol I started firing at them. They were surprised because they thought I was dead.”

He described a head wound that left a divot in his skull and caused heavy bleeding. One of the assassins was wounded in the exchange of gunfire. The hired killers eventually fled the scene without accomplishing their mission, but another brother of El Rey and El Mayo, Vicente Zambada Garcia, was later killed by the Tijuana cartel.

Read: The brother of El Chapo’s partner just spilled the Sinaloa cartel’s secrets

This was just one of many violent confrontations between the warring cartels that El Rey described from the stand today. The most notorious incident was a shootout at a nightclub called Christine’s in the resort city of Puerto Vallarta in 1992. El Rey said his brother told him that El Chapo planned to send gunmen to the club to take out Ramon Arellano-Felix, the Tijuana cartel’s chief enforcer.

Ramon Arellano-Felix narrowly escaped during the shootout at Christine’s, but several of his gunmen and some innocent bystanders were killed. El Rey said this left his brother disappointed. “[El Mayo] was bemoaning the fact that Ramon hadn’t been killed because he was a very dangerous enemy,” he testified.

Chapo got his revenge in early 2002, when Ramon Arellano-Felix was killed in the Sinaloan beach town of Mazatlan. El Rey said that when El Chapo had corrupt police officials pull over the Tijuana cartel leader in front of a hotel, a shootout ensued, leaving Ramon dead.

He testified that a few years later El Chapo confessed to him “that if anything had really given him pleasure, it was to have killed Ramon Arellano.”

The Cardinal

El Chapo trial
In this Feb. 22, 2014, file photo, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, in handcuffs, is escorted to a helicopter by Mexican navy marines in Mexico City, Mexico. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills, file)

A pivotal moment in El Chapo’s story is the 1993 killing of Cardinal Juan Posadas Ocampo at the airport in Guadalajara, Mexico. El Rey testified that his understanding was that gunmen from the Tijuana cartel, sent by Ramon Arellano-Felix, were staking out the airport, where the planned to kill El Chapo.

But El Chapo arrived early and slipped past the gunmen, El Rey said. The cardinal came after, driving a car that was similar to the one used by El Chapo, and was mistaken for the druglord. El Rey said he was told by El Mayo that the Tijuana cartel gunmen mistakenly shot shot the cardinal, which echoes the conventional narrative about the high-profile killing.

Yet this narrative isn’t agreed upon by all law enforcement officials. For the podcast on El Chapo, VICE News spoke with a former DEA agent who worked undercover in Mexico during the early ‘90s. The ex-DEA believes the cardinal was intentionally targeted, perhaps because he was planning to share information with the Vatican about corruption at the highest levels of the Mexican government.

That theory was also voiced Tuesday by El Chapo’s lawyer Jeffrey Lichtman. In his opening statement to the jury, Lichtman claimed El Chapo was framed for the killing “very possibly by the Mexican government.”

The Federation

El Rey spent much of his testimony detailing how El Chapo and El Mayo forged a partnership with other top traffickers to create what is now known as the Sinaloa cartel. They pooled resources such as gunmen and transportation for drug smuggling, and also provided protection for each other by bribing Mexican officials.

El Rey said he personally handed over $300,000 per month in bribes while he was based in Mexico City, corrupting nearly every level of law enforcement in the Mexican capital. El Mayo and El Chapo were responsible for corrupting higher-level officials, including members of the Mexican Attorney General’s office, generals in the Mexican military, and officials from the international police agency Interpol with bribes of up to $500,000.

He said that in the early ‘90s, El Chapo and El Mayo teamed up with a who’s who of prominent Mexican traffickers, including Amado Carrillo Fuentes aka “The Lord of the Skies,” Juan José Esparragoza Moreno aka “El Azul,” the Beltran-Leyva brothers, and Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel. Law enforcement dubbed this group “The Federation.”

The Escape

After the killing of the cardinal in 1993, El Chapo was captured and incarcerated until 2001, when he escaped prison for the first time. El Rey testified that the escape was planned by El Mayo, the Beltran-Leyva brothers, and El Chapo’s brother Arturo Guzman.

El Rey said he heard from El Mayo that El Chapo escaped from a maximum-security prison by hiding in a laundry cart, which was wheeled out the front gate by a guard. That’s the standard version of the story, and it contradicts reporting from journalist Anabel Hernandez, who claims to have evidence that El Chapo actually disguised himself as a police officer.

After the escape, El Rey testified that he and his brother arranged to have a helicopter sent to rescue El Chapo as special forces from the Mexican military were closing in to recapture him. He said the helicopter picked up El Chapo and delivered him to a secluded landing spot near the city of Queretaro, about a three-hour drive outside of Mexico City.

“We’re going to start again. Let’s do this.”

After hiding out for a couple days in Mexico City, El Chapo went to live on a ranch just outside of town that belonged to one of his gunmen, a legendary cartel figure nicknamed Barbarino. There, he held business meetings with El Mayo and Colombian traffickers, and attended the baptism of Barbarino’s son. El Rey recalled with a smile how the priest who was summoned to perform the ceremony “looked a little bit nervous.”

El Rey said that shortly after the escape, El Chapo was ready to get back into business. He described how El Mayo hatched a plan for them to start smuggling large shipments of cocaine. El Chapo seemed enthusiastic, El Rey recalled, and planned to relocate to his “native land” of Sinaloa, where he would remain in hiding for the next 13 years.

El Rey recalled El Chapo saying, “We’re going to start again. Let’s do this.”

Cover image: In this Jan. 8, 2016, file image released by Mexico's federal government, Mexico's most wanted drug lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, stands for his prison mug shot with the inmate number 3870 at the Altiplano maximum security federal prison in Almoloya, Mexico. (Mexico's federal government via AP)