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The 10 wildest moments and stories from El Chapo’s trial

A poisoned arepa, a naked escape, and 20 tons of sunken cocaine: the trial's greatest hits.

by Keegan Hamilton
Jan 29 2019, 4:43pm

Listen to "Chapo: Kingpin on Trial" for free, exclusively on Spotify.

BROOKLYN, New York — After 35 days of testimony by 56 witnesses, the trial of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán is nearing a conclusion. Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn rested their case Monday, and the defense followed suit on Tuesday — after calling just one witness, who was on the stand for less than half an hour.

The lone defense witness was an FBI agent who was questioned about how he took notes during an interview with a Colombian drug lord who testified against El Chapo earlier in the trial. Despite some early indications that El Chapo himself might testify, he told Judge Brian Cogan on Monday that he would invoke his right to remain silent.

"Señor judge, me and my attorneys have spoken about this, and I will reserve," Chapo said in the only moment he was allowed to address the court over the course of the trial.

"Reserve?" Cogan asked. "Yes, I will not testify," Chapo replied.

Closing arguments are now scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday, and the jury could begin deliberating as soon as Friday. A guilty verdict, which would carry a mandatory life sentence in Chapo’s case, seems certain. The government has methodically obliterated any semblance of reasonable doubt about his status as the ruthless leader of the “continuing criminal enterprise” known as the Sinaloa cartel.

Chapo may have passed on his chance to get the last word, but even without his testimony, the trial that already been a Shakespearean drama. Each day has brought fresh jaw-dropping tales of bribery, murder, and betrayal. There's been telenovela-level melodrama, like when Chapo and his wife donned matching red velvet blazers as a show of solidarity against his mistress, who sat on the witness stand while prosecutors read her steamy text messages to the drug kingpin aloud for the jury to hear.

And there has been comedy, like when the lights briefly went out in the courtroom, creating a tense few seconds in pitch black. When the lights flickered back on, a veteran New York court reporter cracked, “He’s gone!” loud enough for everyone to hear. Chapo, known for his daring escapes, remained seated at the defense table, prompting laughter from everyone except the courtroom guards, who glared and no doubt breathed sighs of relief.

The real spectacle, of course, has been the testimony, particularly from the 13 “cooperating witnesses” who used to be part of Chapo’s organization but flipped in exchange for leniency in their own cases. Here are the 10 wildest stories from the government’s case.

Lucero Guadalupe Sanchez Lopez — Chapo's mistress. (Photo: U.S. Attorneys Office for the Eastern District of New York)
Lucero Guadalupe Sanchez Lopez — Chapo's former mistress. (Photo: U.S. Attorneys Office for the Eastern District of New York)

10) The Poisoned Arepa

Before he was one of El Chapo’s primary cocaine suppliers, drug lord Jorge Cifuentes was a young punk locked up in a Colombian prison. He wanted to move up the ranks in the Medellín cartel, so he agreed to murder a fellow inmate who had somehow run afoul of Pablo Escobar’s partner José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, aka El Mexicano.

According to Cifuentes, the cartel gave him a choice of three ways to commit the hit: a knife, a grenade, and cyanide. He opted to slip the poison into an arepa from the prison kitchen that made its way onto the target’s plate. The plot fell apart when the guy lost his appetite. Cifuentes later gave up after botching the grenade attack (he never attempted the blade). Despite his failures as a hitman, Cifuentes went on to ship hundreds of tons of cocaine to the U.S. through Mexico.

9) The Viagra Box

In an effort to corroborate testimony among cooperators, prosecutors have asked several witnesses to describe their first meeting with El Chapo. Most began the same way: The guest is flown in a rickety old Cessa from Culiacán, Sinaloa to a mountain hideout. They land on a clandestine airstrip, which is on a steep incline to slow the plane. It sounds like a harrowing experience, but for Pedro Flores, what happened next was even more frightening.

Listen to the story of the Flores twins on episode 8 of Chapo: Kingpin on Trial

Flores and his twin brother, Margarito, who were from Chicago, were two of Chapo’s main U.S. distributors. On his way to the first business meeting with Chapo, Pedro said he passed by a man who was naked and chained to a pole, presumably as a torture for somehow crossing Chapo. Pedro was dressed like a gringo — in jean shorts — and he recalled Chapo greeting him with a burn, asking why “I couldn't afford the rest of my pants." On a return visit, Pedro brought a gag gift: "a pair of jean shorts in a big Viagra box." Flores got the last laugh again when he became a DEA informant and recorded Chapo discussing a heroin deal.

8) The Helicopter Crash at the Ostrich Ranch

Jorge Cifuentes was so rattled after his Cessna flight into the mountains that when he arrived, he told Chapo he would buy him a brand-new helicopter “so he would fly in a more civilized way." Cifuentes kept his word, gifting his partner a $1 million chopper specially designed to maneuver in tight spaces. Cifuentess brother Alex encouraged Chapo to take pilot lessons so that he could fly away at a moment’s notice in the event of a surprise raid.

Chopper
A photo of a helicopter similar to the one given to El Chapo by Jorge Cifuentes. (Photo: U.S. Attorneys Office for the Eastern District of New York)

Chapo never learned how to fly, but perhaps he should have: One of the cartel’s pilots crashed the helicopter by flying it inside a hanger located at an ostrich ranch on the outskirts of Culiacán (unclear whether any ostriches were harmed in the incident). Cifuentes and Chapo later conspired to push the helicopter off a cliff as part of an insurance fraud scam.

7) The Hacker Who Helped Chapo Spy on His Wife and Mistresses

Christian Rodriguez was just 21-years-old when he was hired to be the Sinaloa cartel’s IT guy. By that time, according to the defense, Rodriguez had already used his hacking prowess to “break into the U.S. energy system, the grid, for fun." He designed an encrypted phone network for the Sinaloa cartel, then became an informant for the FBI, allowing the feds to obtain recordings of hundreds of incriminating phone calls.

Rodriguez also introduced Chapo to spyware, which he had installed on the phones of his wives and mistresses. He used the technology to track their movements, read their text messages, and remotely activate the microphone on their phone to eavesdrop on their conversations. Rodriguez had his own relationship issues at the time, and the combined stress with his informant work caused him to have a nervous breakdown. He underwent “electroconvulsive therapy,” which caused short-term memory loss but didn’t impair his recollection enough to keep him from testifying during the trial.

6) The 20 Tons of Sunken Cocaine

Juan Carlos Ramírez Abadía — better known as Chupeta or Lollipop — was an unforgettable witness. A leader of Colombia’s Norte del Valle cartel, Chupeta had so much plastic surgery during his time as a fugitive that he now looks like a narco Nosferatu. Despite his ghoulish appearance, he was an incredible storyteller, particularly when it came to recounting what happened with 20 tons of cocaine that sank off the coast of Mexico.

Witness
Before-and-after-surgery pictures of Juan Carlos Ramírez Abadía. (Photo: U.S. Attorneys Office for the Eastern District of New York)

Chupeta said a Mexican ship’s captain sampled too much of the cargo and “started to see ghosts” that resembled U.S. Coast Guard ships, leading him to scuttle the boat with all the drugs on board. He had enough sense to take down the coordinates of the shipwreck, but when Chupeta and one of El Chapo’s Sinaloa cartel partners did a flyover of the site they found "nothing other than sea — just the sea." Cartel divers found the sunken treasure after more than a year of searching, and Chupeta sent a Colombian chemist to salvage the waterlogged Coke. Chupeta never mentioned what happened to the captain, but presumably he ended up sleeping with the fishes.

Listen to a discussion about Chupeta’s testimony on Chapo: Kingpin on Trial

5) The Fistful of Dirt

Miguel Angel Martinez was Chapo’s right-hand man from the late ‘80s through the mid-’90s, and he testified about the glory days when Chapo had a fleet of private jets, beach houses all over Mexico, and even his own private zoo with a train that took guests around on a tour to see the tigers, lions, panthers, and deer. But when Martinez — known as El Gordo — got locked up and Chapo suspected him of snitching, their friendship ended in dramatic fashion.

After three attempted stabbings, Martinez was in protective custody at a prison in Mexico City. Early one morning, he heard a brass band playing the song “Un Puño de Tierra” on repeat. The corrido basically tells the listener to enjoy life because you can’t take anything with you when you die, not even a fistful of dirt. Apparently it was one of Chapo’s favorites, and he used to to send a message. When the band stopped playing, an assassin threw a grenade into Martinez’s cell. He shielded himself from the blast by hiding behind the toilet. Chapo’s lawyer was later scolded by the judge for tweeting a link to the song on YouTube after Martinez was done testifying.

4) The $100 Million Bribe

Alex Cifuentes had no shortage of crazy stories after working as Chapo’s personal secretary and living with him in the mountains, like the plot to have the Hell’s Angels murder someone in Canada, or the time that Chapo told a movie producer that the Mexican military had dangled him upside down from a helicopter. But his real bombshell was the allegation that Chapo paid a $100 million bribe to former Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto in 2012.

Listen to our interview with Felipe Calderon in episode 4 of Chapo: Kingpin on Trial

Cifuentes testified about seeing photos of “suitcases full of cash” on a plane that belonged to a political consultant who worked on Peña Nieto’s 2012 campaign. He also claimed that the president initially asked for $250 million from Chapo. (A spokesman for the ex-president denied the allegations.) Cifuentes also accused former president Felipe Calderon of being on the payroll of a rival cartel, and current president Andrés Manuel López Obrador was implicated when court documents revealed the claim that an official on his failed 2006 campaign took a cartel payoff.

3) The Mile-Long Escape Tunnel with a Motorcycle Inside

Chapo’s escape from a maximum-security prison near Mexico City was the stuff of legend even before the trial, but witness Dámaso López offered some new details that made it even more spectacular. According to López, Chapo’s right-hand man throughout the 2000s, the tunnel was masterminded by Chapo’s sons — with some key assistance from his wife Emma Coronel. She allegedly passed messages from Chapo after visiting him behind bars, and may have smuggled in a GPS-enabled watch that López said was used to plot the 4,600-foot path of the tunnel from a shack outside the prison to the shower drain in Chapo’s cell.

Listen to episode 7 of Chapo: Kingpin on Trial, which describes the tunnel escape

When it came time for the escape, at around 9:30 p.m. on July 11, 2015, Chapo stepped into the hole and found his brother-in-law waiting on a motorcycle, which was mounted on rails. Chapo was then transported on an ATV to a nearby warehouse, where a pilot was waiting with a plane that took him into the mountains. He was back at his hometown throwing a party with his family and business partners within the week. López claimed that after Chapo was recaptured in 2016, he paid a $2 million bribe to the chief of Mexico’s prison system and was planning to tunnel out again until he was extradited to New York to stand trial.

2) The Naked Escape

One witness testified that El Chapo had a warning network in place at his hideouts in the mountains of Sinaloa, and he allegedly ordered his lookout to "call me five minutes before the army is close and even if I'm naked I'll run away, just like that.” Apparently he wasn’t kidding, though his au natural escape happened down in the city at one of his safe houses in Culiacán.

Chapo’s mistress, a former state lawmaker in Sinaloa named Lucero Sanchez, testified that a reinforced door bought him enough time during an early-morning raid by the DEA and Mexican marines that he was able to activate a hidden switch in his bathroom, triggering hydraulics that lifted up his bathtub and revealed a tunnel underneath. In the scramble to lave, Sanchez said, Chapo had no time to get dressed. He was completely nude as he fled through the tunnel, which connected to the sewer system. I’ve been inside that tunnel and it was pretty gross even with clothes on.

Chapo left behind a trove of evidence at his network of safe houses, including rocket-propelled grenades, a pistol with his initials encrusted in diamonds on the grip, more than 2,800 packages of meth, and a bunch of plastic bananas stuffed with cocaine. He was captured a few days later at a beachfront hotel with his wife. The DEA agent who orchestrated the raid didn’t specify whether they caught Chapo with his pants down the second time around.

1) The Torture

Most descriptions of murder during the first two and a half months of El Chapo’s trial were bloodless, but prosecutors saved the most gruesome details for the grand finale. Isaias Valdez Rios, a former army special forces member who became a hitman for Chapo, was the last cooperating witness called by the government. Valdez, known by the nickname Memín, described the routine day-in-the-life of a sicario, which included graphic details about how he saw Chapo personally torture and murder at least three people.

Memín recounted how one of the victims, a member of the rival Arellano-Felix cartel, had been burned all over his body with a clothing iron even before falling into Chapo’s hands. Chapo allegedly kept his captive locked in a henhouse-type structure until the smell of his scorched flesh became unbearable, at which point he ordered his men to dig a hole in a nearby graveyard. Memín said Chapo began to interrogate the man, then shot him with a .25 caliber pistol and had him buried while he was still “gasping for air.”

Chapo's person handgun. (Photo: U.S. Attorneys Office for the Eastern District of New York)
Chapo's person handgun. (Photo: U.S. Attorneys Office for the Eastern District of New York)

In a separate incident, Memín said Chapo spent two or three hours beating two captured members of the rival Los Zetas cartel with a large tree branch until they “were pretty much like ragdolls.” Memín said Chapo then ordered his men to dig a large hole and start a bonfire. Chapo and another hitman strapped the Zetas onto the back of ATVs, then transported them to the fire pit. Memín recalled that Chapo “didn't say much,” he just chambered a round in his assault rifle and said “ Chinga tu madre” before shooting the Zetas in the head. According to Memín, the bodies were then dumped in the fire and burned to ash.

Cover: Undated photo of Chapo with an unidentified man. (Photo: U.S. Attorneys Office for the Eastern District of New York)