El Chapo trial: Testimony offers fascinating inside look at drug cartel operations

DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN, Brooklyn -- Opening statements concluded and testimony began Wednesday in the high-security trial of infamous Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

Tons of cocaine from Colombia arrived in Cancun aboard speedboats and was then smuggled over the United States border in tanker trucks, according to a witness who detailed a strict hierarchy that routinely bribed Mexican police commanders, highway patrol officers and government officials.

The testimony offered the jury a fascinating inside look into the alleged operations of the Sinaloa drug cartel through the eyes of one of its former top lieutenants.

Jesus Zambada is one of the government's key witnesses in their sensational case against Joaquin Guzman, the alleged drug trafficking kingpin better known as El Chapo. Zambada is the brother of Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, Guzman's alleged partner in the Sinaloa cartel and its de-facto leader who remains at large in Mexico.

Zambada testified that his brother and Guzman ran the cartel in the 1990s and used speedboats to transport 21 tons of cocaine to the shores of Cancun "every three to four weeks." The shipments would be offloaded in human chains "to save time" and then packed into Chevy Suburbans and driven with police escorts to warehouses, he said, where they would be loaded onto the tanker trucks and smuggled into the US.

The tanker trucks had a smaller tank within the larger tanker, Zambada testified, which contained the cocaine. Yet when inspectors would examine the shipments, he said, they would see hundreds of gallons of sloshing gasoline.

Earlier, the defense concluded its opening statement after a stern lecture from the judge, who agreed with prosecutors that attorney Jeffrey Lichtman had gone too far in the first phase of his opening, delivered late Tuesday.

"You went far afield, that was pretty radical," said Judge Brian Cogan, scolding Lichtman for making "irrelevant and misleading statements" to the jury. Rather than strike the entire defense opening, as prosecutors had requested, the judge reminded the jury that it is Guzman who is on trial and not the US or Mexican governments.

Lichtman used the remainder of his opening to trash the prosecution's witness list, many of whom are drug traffickers themselves.

"These are people who lie every day," he said. "They need to please the government to get their sentences reduced. Scum. This is what you're dealing with."

He concluded by saying, "A part of you thinks he's guilty of something. Try to ignore that voice in your head that says he's guilty."

Keep an open mind, he said, and you'll conclude that "this case is built on a foundation of lies and that Joaquin Guzman is innocent."

Later Wednesday morning, the prosecution called its first witness, Carlos Salazar, a retired Customs agent.

In the prosecution's opening statement Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Fels told jurors how the man who got his start in a modest marijuana-selling business in Mexico ruthlessly turned it into a blood-drenched smuggling operation that funneled cocaine and other drugs as far north as New York. Fels said Guzman "sent killers to wipe out competitors" and "waged wars against longtime partners...including his own cousins."

Guzman, who has been held in solitary confinement since his extradition to the United States early last year, has pleaded not guilty to charges that he amassed a multi-billion-dollar fortune smuggling tons of cocaine and other drugs in a vast supply chain that reached New York, New Jersey, Texas and elsewhere north of the border.

If convicted, he faces a possible life prison sentence.

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