For nearly two years, crime buffs — especially those with a fascination for the Sinaloa drug cartel — have been waiting for the sprawling drug conspiracy trial of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the Mexican kingpin known as El Chapo1.
This is the first time American prosecutors have had the chance to publicly lay out what they know about a major Mexican cartel, as they have done with other criminal organizations like Al Qaeda and the Mafia.
Last week, before the start of the trial, two jurors were dismissed. One of them said they were “anxious and upset” at the prospect of casting judgment on El Chapo.
People are getting out of El Chapo jury duty for some wild reasons. pic.twitter.com/23DdElt6yM
The trial finally began with a bang in Federal District Court in Brooklyn as a cartel insider took the stand.
The man with all the secrets
Witness of the week: Jesus Zambada García served for years as one of Mr. Guzmán’s top logistics chiefs, managing the cartel’s territory in Mexico City. Mr. Zambada had a legitimate job as an accountant before he began as a trafficker. But his employers fired him when they learned he was the brother of Ismael Zambada García, Mr. Guzmán’s longtime partner.
In two days of testimony, Mr. Zambada, 57, proved himself fluent not only in the cartel’s financing and smuggling tactics, but also in its habitual use of violence and bribery.
A particular bombshell was when Mr. Zambada testified that now-deceased drug kingpin Ramón Arellano Felíx was personally responsible for the accidental shooting of Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo in 1993, one of the most notorious killings in Mexican history.
When he takes the stand again this week, Mr. Guzmán’s lawyers have said, Mr. Zambada is expected to confess to a remarkable act of corruption: paying $6 million to “the now incumbent president of Mexico.”
Other things Zambada revealed:
*Initially, the government had its own name for the Sinaloa cartel2: La Federación. Mr. Zambada testified that Mr. Guzmán shared power and profits with Ismael Zambada, known as El Mayo, in a “fifty-fifty” partnership.
*Mr. Zambada also identified the cartel’s other principal leaders — among them, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, known as The Lord of the Skies because he owned a large fleet of smuggling planes; and Juan José Esparragoza, known as El Azul (Spanish for blue.)
Mr. Esparragoza, one of the group’s oldest and most respected members, served as Mr. Guzmán’s mentor.
“Azul was the one who basically supported Joaquín Guzmán Loera to be a great drug trafficker,” Mr. Zambada said.
*Mr. Guzmán’s home plaza3, Sinaloa, was important, Mr. Zambada said, because of its proximity to the “Golden Triangle,” a fertile region where the states of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua meet. It was there, he added, that most of Mexico’s marijuana and poppies — used for making heroin — were grown.
Sinaloa was also a premier plaza because most of the cartel’s leaders came from there.
“Their families are there,” Mr. Zambada said. “Their businesses, their life.”
Prepare for a long day
Given the Sinaloa cartel’s penchant for violence, security at the trial has been exceedingly tight. The United States Marshals worked hard last week to accommodate the public, but should you decide to attend the proceedings, which could last as long as four months, prepare for the following:
Arrive early for a 9:30 a.m. start. During the first week, those wanting a seat arrived by 6:45 a.m. Drink coffee beforehand because you will be asked to dump any remaining beverages before you enter.
As you pass through the first level of security, you’ll be asked to put your belongings through a scanner and to walk through a metal detector. Here, you will be told to relinquish your cellphone, laptop and other electronic devices. (This is normal for the federal courts.)
Then, you’ll take the elevator to the 8th floor, find a second line of people outside the courtroom and wait for the next few hours.
Say hello to the bomb-sniffing dog lying beside another metal detector.
You’ll pass through a second layer of security, putting your remaining belongings back through the scanner. This time, be sure to remove your shoes.
Depending on your place in line, you’ll join one of the following courtrooms: The first approximately 50 people are allowed in the main courtroom. Another 50 are allowed in the overflow room. All remaining people will be asked to leave.
A Chapo trial glossary
1Chapo — Although some translate “chapo” as “shorty,” a better translation is “burly.” A term used predominantly in Sinaloa, “chapo” is a nickname for someone short but with strong stature. In other parts of Mexico you might hear “chaparro” instead of “chapo.”
2The Sinaloa drug cartel — These days, the Sinaloa cartel is an international empire with a top-down structure of leaders, sub-leaders and ground-level workers like drivers, pilots, engineers and assassins.
But when the group first came together in the early 1990s, it was less organized. Mr. Zambada said they were a band of traffickers from the western state of Sinaloa — some old comrades, some related by blood — who gradually joined forces based on “bonds of friendship.”
3The plaza — The fundamental unit of Mexican drug trafficking, which is to the cartels what turf is to the Mafia.
According to Mr. Zambada, the Sinaloa cartel operated in at least a dozen plazas across Mexico — from ones on the west coast, like Guerrero and Jalisco, to those along the northern border, like Sonora and Chihuahua. The coastal plazas, he explained, were essential because they were access points for cocaine shipments arriving by sea from Colombia. The border plazas were used to smuggle drugs into the United States.
Compa — On Thursday, a prosecutor, Gina Parlovecchio, asked Mr. Zambada to explain to the jury the meaning of “compa” — an abbreviation for “compadre,” meaning a “close friend” in Spanish, and a word often used among cartel members.
The jury — consisting of 12 seated jurors and six alternates — has not only received lessons in the inner workings of the prominent Mexican cartel, but also a crash course in Spanish slang.
Smuggling tunnel — One of Mr. Guzmán’s favorite methods to smuggle drugs was a tunnel. Last week, the jury heard about a tunnel that went from a warehouse in Douglas, Az., to a ranch-style home in Agua Prieta, Mexico.
On the Mexican side, the entrance was hidden under a pool table that ascended from the floor by a hydraulic lift. The tunnel was located only two blocks from the local Customs and Border Protection office in Arizona.
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