Jurors in ‘El Chapo’ Trial Told of Mexico’s Drug Wars, Corruption

November 15, 2018 Updated: November 16, 2018

NEW YORK—A key prosecution witness in the U.S. trial of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman on Nov. 15 told jurors that there were “a lot of deaths” as the accused Mexican drug lord and his associates built the Sinaloa Cartel in the 1990s through bloody conflict with rival drug traffickers.

Jesus Zambada told the jury that his brother, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, and Guzman used armies of sicarios, or assassins, to kill their enemies. Zambada, who has pleaded guilty to U.S. criminal charges, was testifying for a second day in Brooklyn federal court under an agreement to cooperate with prosecutors.

Guzman is accused of directing massive shipments of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana to the United States. He faces life in prison if he is convicted of the 17 criminal counts against him.

One of Guzman’s lawyers, Jeffrey Lichtman, told jurors in his opening statement that Ismael Zambada, who remains at large, actually controlled the cartel, and Guzman was a scapegoat framed with the help of corrupt Mexican officials.

Zambada on Nov. 15 told the story of the Sinaloa Cartel’s emergence in the early 1990s. He said Guzman formed an alliance with several other drug lords to take on the powerful Arellano Felix drug trafficking family.

“There are always a lot of deaths,” he said of the cartel’s wars.

Victims included patrons shot at a nightclub in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, where Zambada said Guzman tried, and failed, to kill one of the Arellano Felixes in 1992.

Zambada admitted he took part in several murder plots himself, though he said he never personally killed anyone.

He was wounded in a gunfight with enemy sicarios, and another one of his brothers, who had no involvement in the drug trade, was shot at his doorstep in Cancun, he said.

Dressed in dark blue prison clothing and speaking through an interpreter, Zambada also testified that the Sinaloa Cartel bought off officials at every level of government, including Mexican state governors, national attorneys general, and members of the international police organization Interpol, to ensure safe passage for its products.

While in charge of cartel operations in Mexico City, Zambada said, he personally paid about $300,000 in bribes every month. On one occasion, he said, he paid a $100,000 bribe to a general at the explicit direction of Guzman.

Guzman was an equal partner with Ismael Zambada within the cartel, said Jesus Zambada, who is expected to continue testifying later on Nov. 15.


By Brendan Pierson