Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was so rich that “he had houses at every single beach” and “ranches in every single state,” according to testimony by a prosecution witness at the former drug lord’s New York trial.
Miguel Ángel Martínez, a former Sinaloa Cartel pilot and one-time close associate of Guzmán, yesterday told jurors in the Brooklyn federal court that a “cocaine boom” in the early 1990s funded the ex-capo’s lavish lifestyle.
A private zoo where big cats roamed, a trip to Switzerland for an anti-aging treatment, a gambling spree in Macau, private jets, opulent gifts and “four to five” women were among Guzmán’s excesses, the court heard.
Chapo’s money came out of the clear blue sky – literally.
Martínez explained that after the Sinaloa Cartel smuggled tonnes of cocaine into the United States – through tunnels, in trucks with secret compartments, inside fake chile cans – millions of dollars in cash would come back to Mexico.
A lot of it ended up in Tijuana, he said, where Guzmán would send his three private jets each month to pick it up and return it to him.
Each plane would carry up to US $10 million, Martínez said, also telling jurors that the cartel used stash houses to hide the money and that suitcases of dollars were sometimes taken to Mexican banks where tellers were bribed to exchange the currency for pesos.
Guzmán, who faces possible life imprisonment if convicted of conspiracy and trafficking charges, also used his jets to travel – alongside his armed guards – to his various properties dotted around Mexico, the witness said.
A US $10-million mansion in the Pacific coast resort city of Acapulco featured swimming pools, a tennis court and the zoo with “a little train” that was used to ride around and see lions, tigers and panthers,” Martínez said, adding that a yacht dubbed “Chapito” was also docked there.
In Mexico, El Chapo, a nickname stemming from his short stature, only frequented “the best places,” drinking “whisky, beer and cognac” all the while, he said.
The witness, who became a cartel logistics chief and ran Guzmán’s Mexico City administrative office, told the jury that the ex-kingpin also developed a taste for world travel that took him to Argentina, Brazil, Japan and “all of Europe,” among other destinations.
During one trip to the old continent, Martínez said, El Chapo visited Switzerland with his entourage for “a cellular youth treatment.”
Another trip took him to the famous casinos of Macau, a Chinese territory that was formerly a Portuguese colony.
During his halcyon days, Guzmán had “four or five” love interests all of whom were on the cartel’s payroll, Martínez said as the defendant’s wife listened from the public gallery.
One Christmas, the drug lord gifted 50 luxury cars to cartel employees, Martínez said, adding that he personally received a diamond-encrusted Rolex watch from Guzmán.
The good times, however, were tarnished by a bloody turf war with a rival cartel, the witness said.
Things got so bad, Martínez explained, that the Tijuana Cartel sent a team of assassins to the Guadalajara Airport to try to kill Guzmán in 1993 but accidentally murdered a Roman Catholic cardinal instead.
The kingpin was captured in Guatemala the next month but escaped from prison in 2001. He was arrested again in 2014 only to escape from a maximum security penitentiary the next year via a 1.5-kilometer tunnel with an entrance in his cell shower.
Guzmán, who was extradited to the United States last year, has pleaded not guilty to 17 counts of drug trafficking, conspiracy, firearms offenses and money laundering.
His defense team has attempted to portray him as a scapegoat, arguing that Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada is the real mastermind of the Sinaloa Cartel.
A lawyer for the accused described cartel witnesses testifying against Guzmán as “liars,” “degenerates” and “scum” who are speaking in the hope that their own prison sentences will be reduced.
Yesterday, a defense attorney suggested that Martínez couldn’t be trusted because he had a severe cocaine habit while working for Guzmán.
The witness admitted that he had used up to four grams of the drug a day at the time but pledged that he hadn’t touched it for 20 years.
The jury has already heard from Jesús Zambada, a former cartel operations chief, who spilled secrets on the inner workings of the trafficking organization, including a plan to kill an anti-drug czar and told tales involving bribes, bullets and bloodshed.
The trial, now in its third week, continues today.