By Nicole Hong
Jan. 3, 2019 7:14 p.m. ET
The former logistics manager of the Sinaloa cartel testified at trial Thursday against his former boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, giving jurors a rare opportunity to hear details of alleged high-level discussions within the cartel’s inner circle.
The testimony of Vicente Zambada Niebla, who was arrested in Mexico in 2009 and extradited to Chicago, was highly anticipated. Mr. Zambada served among the leadership of the Sinaloa cartel for nearly a decade and recently pleaded guilty to drug-conspiracy charges. Officials have called him one of the most significant drug traffickers to ever be extradited to the U.S.
As part of his plea agreement, Mr. Zambada agreed to forfeit more than $1.3 billion to U.S. authorities and to assist federal prosecutors. In exchange, he said the government allowed his family to move to the U.S. for their safety. He remains in federal custody.
Mr. Zambada’s father, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García, once ran the cartel alongside Mr. Guzmán. The elder Mr. Zambada is still the cartel’s leader and remains at large.
Mr. Guzmán, who is on trial in Brooklyn federal court, faces a 17-count indictment that accuses him of building a multibillion-dollar international narcotics empire over nearly three decades. Mr. Guzmán has pleaded not guilty.
As the person in charge of coordinating drug shipments for the cartel, Mr. Zambada offered jurors a detailed account of how massive amounts of cocaine and methamphetamines were ferried from Colombia through Mexico into U.S. cities.
According to Mr. Zambada, the cartel hired families with U.S. citizenship who lived in El Paso, Texas, to drive across the Mexican border several times a day and return to the U.S. carrying cocaine or drug proceeds in hidden compartments in their cars.
To get cocaine from the Mexican border to Chicago, drugs were hidden on trains carrying meat and other products, Mr. Zambada said.
Cartel members also smuggled drugs from South America to Mexico in submarines, he said. Using longitude and latitude coordinates, fast boats would meet the submarines in open water and then bring the drugs to the coast, where they would be loaded onto cars and moved into safehouses. Mr. Zambada said one submarine shipment he coordinated carried at least five tons of cocaine.
Mr. Zambada described a 2008 meeting in which representatives of Mexican state oil company Petróleos Mexicanos, known as Pemex, and corrupt politicians asked Mr. Guzmán and other cartel members if they could help transport 100 tons of cocaine in an oil tanker owned by the company. Mr. Zambada said he didn’t know if the shipment was successful because he was arrested a few months after the meeting. A spokeswoman for Pemex declined to comment.
Mr. Zambada was responsible for facilitating payments to corrupt agents at every level of Mexico’s law enforcement, who were collectively paid $1 million a month in bribes, he said. Commanders working for the cartel tipped Mr. Guzmán off about the operation by Mexican officials to recapture him after he escaped from a maximum-security prison in 2001 in a laundry cart.
After that escape, Mr. Zambada said Mr. Guzmán described to him the anxiety of hiding among the sheets and blankets in the laundry cart, counting each door the cart passed. At one point, the prison worker helping him briefly let go of the cart and it started rolling back, sending Mr. Guzmán into a panic about being discovered, Mr. Zambada testified. He said Mr. Guzmán told him the last minutes getting out of the prison seemed like an eternity.
The cartel tried to help Mr. Guzmán’s brother escape from prison as well. The idea, Mr. Zambada said, was to fly a helicopter over the recreation yard and lower a “steel bubble” that could shield Mr. Guzmán’s brother from bullets as he was roped up. The plan never came into fruition; Mr. Guzmán’s brother was killed in prison in 2004.
Mr. Zambada also told jurors about conversations in which Mr. Guzmán allegedly ordered the killings of rival cartel members. He rattled off personal details about dozens of rivals and business partners, highlighting the level of access he had within the cartel.
Mr. Zambada’s testimony came two months into Mr. Guzmán’s trial and helped corroborate testimony from other witnesses. The trial is expected to last several more weeks. The judge on Thursday repeatedly urged prosecutors not to get bogged down in the details and to speed up the case.
The legend of Mr. Guzmán, one of the most notorious criminals in modern history, has drawn spectators to wait in line at 6 a.m. to get a glimpse of him. On Thursday, some spectators were reprimanded by a federal marshal after they appeared to wave at Mr. Guzmán from the audience and give him a thumbs up.
Write to Nicole Hong at [email protected]
Appeared in the January 4, 2019, print edition as 'Aide Testifies Against ‘El Chapo’.'