El Chapo Trial: Witness Alleges Cartel Connection to Colombian Guerilla Group
Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera worked with a Colombian guerilla group to ship cocaine from South America to Mexico, according to new evidence heard Thursday in Brooklyn federal court.
In a recording of a phone call between Guzmán and a representative of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, El Chapo was heard negotiating details of a six-ton shipment of cocaine that he was trying to buy from the group, which had long financed its war against the Colombian state by taxing drug traffickers and, over time, taking a direct role in the smuggling of cocaine.
In the recording, Chapo and the unidentified FARC representative agreed that Guzmán would buy two tons of coke with cash and get the other four tons on credit, with a plan to sign over properties held by an associate as collateral. Guzmán also offered to send his nephew to Colombia, essentially as a hostage, so the FARC could be guaranteed he paid for the rest of the shipment.
The recording, which prosecutors said was from May 2010, was the first time jurors heard at length direct evidence of El Chapo’s involvement in the nitty-gritty details of his alleged drug operation, including a back-and-forth in which Guzmán appears not to hear — or pretends not to hear — the FARC man, identified in a transcript of the call as UM2, insist on a price of $2,100 per kilo, as opposed to the $2,000 Guzmán apparently wants to pay.
Photo: US Department of Justice/Brooklyn Federal Court
The call was entered into evidence and played for jurors during the testimony of Jorge Milton Cifuentes Villa, a Colombian drug trafficker who said he worked closely with Guzmán’s Sinaloa Cartel to ship cocaine from Ecuador to Mexico. Cifuentes — who himself confessed to providing weapons to a right-wing death squad that was actively fighting the FARC — provided context and commentary on the recording, giving jurors a window into the at-times hard-to-decipher conversation. In one exchange, after Guzmán had initially spoken of buying two and a half tons of coke in cash, he seamlessly changed the amount to two tons. (Cifuentes was extradited to the United States in 2013, and has pleaded guilty to drug trafficking and money laundering. He has not yet been sentenced.)
“First of all, he’s a really good businessman, because he’s saying he’s going to pay for two, not two and a half,” Cifuentes quipped.
It was unclear, however, if the deal ever actually took place. Cifuentes said he owned the properties that Guzmán intended to sign over as collateral, but they were never transferred to the FARC representative. He said he couldn’t say definitively if the two tons El Chapo meant to buy in cash ever traded hands.
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The recordings pointed to a major blunder on the part of cartel leadership, who apparently thought they were speaking on a secure line. Cifuentes had hired a systems engineer, introduced to him by his sister and fellow drug-trafficker, to set up an encrypted network to allow the far-flung cartel members a way to directly communicate without worrying about government surveillance. Unfortunately for El Chapo and his associates, the engineer failed to continue paying for the licensing of the encryption software, leaving their communications exposed, Cifuentes told jurors
The FARC bombshell was just one of several major examples of El Chapo’s connection to both guerillas and high-ranking members of the government and military in the countries from which the cartel operated. On Wednesday, in his second day of testimony, Cifuentes — who is set to take the stand once more on Monday — told jurors that he had participated in a meeting at El Chapo’s “El Roble” ranch in the Sierra Madre mountains with representatives of PEMEX, Mexico’s state-owned oil company, to discuss using PEMEX oil tankers to ship cocaine from South America to Mexico.
Like the FARC call, Cifuentes said the plan never panned out, but it was one more reminder to jurors that dirty money from the Sinaloa Cartel corrupted officials at the highest level.
On the ground and at sea, Cifuentes claimed, the cartel bought the protection of military officers to ensure the safe passage of drugs headed north. Cifuentes described how he coordinated a complex smuggling route from Colombia into Ecuador, and then through international waters to Mexico. In Ecuador, that meant bribing an army captain $100 per kilo — a total of $600,000 for one six-ton shipment — in exchange for transporting the coke in army trucks from the Colombian border to warehouses in the cities of Quito and Guayaquil.
Next, Cifuentes told the jury, they had to get the coke into open waters. Guzmán had hired a fleet of Peruvian shark-fishing vessels to transport the drugs, and workers in Ecuador would ferry the coke from shore in “go-fast” boats, at which point the Peruvian vessels would sail north in international waters and hand the drugs off to tuna-fishing boats, which would then head closer to Mexico and unload the cocaine onto more go-fast boats, which would speed the drugs to shore.
In order to protect the shipments during this stage of the smuggling route, Cifuentes said he paid corrupt officials in the Ecuadorian navy $200,000 in exchange for intel on the movements of the American navy operating off the coast of Ecuador.
That worked well on the first such shipment in 2008, when Cifuentes managed to get six tons of cocaine from Ecuador to the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico, he testified. Despite being promised a 25-percent cut of the profits, Cifuentes said Guzmán never paid up. And the next two shipments were an unmitigated disaster, straining the relationship between Cifuentes and El Chapo.
The trouble began in January of 2009, when Guzmán asked Cifuentes to arrange for another six-ton shipment via the same Colombia-Ecuador-Mexico route that Cifuentes had used the previous year. Despite getting word from his Ecuadorian navy contacts that American ships could be operating nearby, El Chapo appeared desperate to get his hands on the next load, and pushed Cifuentes to move it immediately.´
“Don Joaquín took responsibility for the cocaine, and said, ‘It doesn’t matter if the army is right in front of you, deliver the cocaine,’” Cifuentes told jurors. “And it was captured by the American navy, just like I had told him.”
The next load didn’t fare any better. A few months later, in 2009, Guzmán was banking on Cifuentes to arrange an eight-ton shipment of cocaine along the same route. Cifuentes said he managed to get six tons of cocaine to his warehouses in Quito and Guayaquil. He was waiting on another two tons of coke to arrive when he found out that the Peruvian shark-fishing boats were going to be passing Ecuador soon.
Cifuentes was eager to move the six tons he already had, he said, but Guzmán appeared desperate to get the full eight tons, and ordered Cifuentes to wait. Cifuentes was so nervous about keeping that much weight in one place that he considered lying to Guzmán and just sending it along, but eventually decided against it.
“The Peruvian boats were on their way, and I wanted to get the six tons on the way, but Joaquin kept insisting that I needed to send eight,” he said.
It was during this tense period that Cifuentes’ nephew made a critical mistake, first by registering the warehouses in Ecuador under his own name, and then by allowing a corrupt soldier to deliver a load straight to one of the warehouses. When the Ecuadorian army intercepted a relatively minor load of 200 kilos of cocaine, the soldier who had been to the warehouse was arrested, and flipped on the smugglers. The Ecuadorian authorities raided the warehouses, and seized all six tons. Cifuentes said he was just about through.
“I didn’t want to know any more about drug trafficking with Don Joaquín,” Cifuentes told the court.
Like many of the the other cooperating witnesses who have so far testified against Guzmán, Cifuentes has his own sordid backstory filled with intrigue, murder plots and staggering amounts of cocaine, all of which Guzmán’s defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman used to try to cast Cifuentes as an unreliable witness.
Jorge Milton Cifuentes Villa near Caracas, Venezuela, in 2012. Photo: Ariana Cubillos/AP/Shutterstock
In 1984, Cifuentes was locked up in Colombia on a charge of murder, a crime he claims he did not commit. While he was in prison in Medellín, he said, he was recruited by a high-ranking member of the Medellín Cartel to carry out a hit on another prisoner, who was accused of stealing cocaine. Cifuentes was offered three possible methods of execution.
“They gave me a revolver, they gave me cyanide poison, and they gave me a grenade for me to choose which way I wanted to do it,” he said.
Cifuentes decided on the method he described as the “simplest,” and proceeded to sprinkle cyanide on the marked man’s arepas. When the target failed to eat the poisoned arepa, Cifuentes said he made sure to dispose of it, to avoid poisoning anyone else.
“So you don’t like hurting people?” Lichtman asked him, during cross-examination.
“Not people who are not in my way,” Cifuentes said.
“I’m not in your way, am I?” Lichtman asked.
“No sir, you’re doing you job,” Cifuentes replied.
After the arepa plot failed, Cifuentes said he tossed a grenade into the man’s cell, but the concrete bed in the cell managed to shield the man from the blast.
“He only got shrapnel in his legs,” Cifuentes said. “Nothing happened to him — well, he was scared.”
After two years in prison, the murder charges against Cifuentes were dropped, and he got into the drug game for real. By the early 1990s, he was living in McAllen, Texas, on a fake visa, and alongside his partner Humberto Ojeda he was trafficking so much coke that the duo’s operation was grossing $100 million per month, Cifuentes said. That partnership came to an abrupt end in 1997, when Roba Chivas was gunned down in Mexico by sicarios working for El Chapo’s partner Ismael Zambada, or El Mayo. Cifuentes was furious, he said, especially because Ojeda’s son was in the car when Ojeda was shot. But that did not stop Cifuentes from continuing to work with the Sinaloa Cartel, another apparent moral failing that Lichtman seized upon.
“Despite the fact that Mayo killed a man who you described as your brother, you were still willing to deal drugs with him?” Lichtman asked.
“Yes sir,” Cifuentes replied.
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