El Chapo trial week 3: Plastic surgeries, bricks of cocaine and an ominous prison serenade

‘El Chapo’ jurors have nothing to fear, lawyer says
Law enforcement official via CNN
Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is seen here in police custody in New York City.

In the procession of cartel members and law enforcement agents who have testified against Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the face of former Colombian drug lord Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia stood out.

Ramirez, also known as “Chupeta,” or lollipop, is also notorious for having multiple plastic surgeries to alter his face and evade authorities. He entered federal court in Brooklyn on Thursday wearing a black puffer coat and winter gloves and only glanced at his former trafficking partner once.

The pair worked together for nearly 18 years. Ramirez’s associates would grow and process cocaine and fly it to Mexico, bribing authorities in both countries to look the other way. Then, Guzman’s cartel had the difficult task of smuggling the drugs into the US.

The sheer amount of cocaine that law enforcement have been able to intercept is something jurors may never get to see in person — witnesses testified that most of the evidence has to be destroyed shortly after being seized. What does remain are some samples from the tons of cocaine that the US government has seized over the years. DEA agent Scott Schoonover pulled out a bag so heavy with bricks of cocaine that it clanked as it hit the prosecution table, as curious jurors peered at the mound. The sample was from a seizure that ranked in the top five biggest seizures in his 36 years with the agency.

Guzman has remained fixated on those testifying against him, entering court each day in suits his legal team says are from Kmart and smiling and waving at his wife who has attended each of the nine days of trial so far.

‘I’m a lot faster, try me and you’ll see’

Ramirez believes his North Valley Cartel was able to cross some 400,000 kilos of cocaine into the US during his two decades with the organization. And he said the Mexican cartel he worked with the most to smuggle his Colombian cocaine to associates in the United States was Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel.

The two drug lords met for the first time in a Mexico City hotel in 1990. The two spoke about the logistics of transferring Ramirez’s cocaine to Mexico via planes and the difficulty of Colombian pilots trying to spot clandestine landing strips in Mexico. The air strips were not registered on any navigational charges and on unpaved, dirt roads, often in the middle of the mountains or the jungle.

Ramirez said he asked Guzman how many planes he could send him during that first meeting.

“He told me to send him as many planes as I could.”

While Mexican drug traffickers would normally charge Ramirez 37 percent of his load of cocaine upon delivery to his contacts in the US, Guzman was going to charge more — 40 percent.

“He said, ‘I’m a lot faster. Try me and you’ll see. Your planes, your pilots will be safe because my arrangements are very good,'” Ramirez testified.

It could take other traffickers a month or more to move drugs from Mexico into the US to Ramirez’s contacts — the first shipment El Chapo trafficked for him took less than a week.

“That was the first time that one of the Mexican traffickers was able to deliver my cocaine to me that quickly,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez said his organization, like Guzman’s was made up of different fronts that handled cocaine growing and processing, weapons and security, and corruption.

“You cannot be the leader of a cartel without corruption, they go hand in hand.”

The crime and corruption in Ramirez’s cartel, like Guzman’s, also involved murder. Ramirez admitted to ordering the killing of about 150 people, including Americans, and said he has personally shot and killed someone.

Ramirez is detained in the US on drug trafficking charges. As part of his extradition agreement with Brazil, where he was first captured, he is to serve no more than 30 years. But if government attorneys are satisfied with Ramirez’s cooperation, they can opt to write a letter to a sentencing judge that could help Ramirez receive less time. But his cooperation agreement stipulates he cannot serve less than 25 years.

Drama inside court and out

Inside court, former Sinaloa Cartel associate Miguel Angel Martinez Martinez, who was released from prison and is a cooperating government witness, testified that he believes Guzman was behind four attempted attacks on his life. One attack was foreshadowed by a band playing Guzman’s favorite song on repeat hours before grenades were thrown into his prison cell. Out of concern for his safety, court sketch artists are not allowed to depict his face in their work.

Martinez said he was stabbed in prison on three occasions, in attacks that left his lung, intestines and pancreas perforated. Twice after being stabbed he was sent to the hospital and eventually returned to the same spot, sharing a cell with his attackers.

Martinez was once a close associate of Guzman. He would look after his office and testified that he overheard Guzman order the killing of suspected rival cartel members on multiple occasions. But after being arrested, Martinez said he grew to hate Guzman.

“I never failed him, never stole from him, never betrayed him,” Martinez said, of Guzman. “I watched over all his family. The only thing I received was four attempted attacks against me, without saying anything.”

Outside court, prosecutors allege the defense team has been tweeting inappropriately, pointing out that defense attorney Eduardo Balarezo tweeted a link to the song that haunted Martinez before his attack.

Prosecutors say the tweets are meant to “place fear” in both the jury and witnesses. Defense attorneys pointed out that the jury is being told not to use social media, saying that prosecutors allegations are “utterly baseless.”