MEXICO CITY — The night before the final unsuccessful attempt on his life, a brass band outside the Mexican prison where Miguel Angel Martinez was being held ominously belted out a favorite number of alleged drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
Martinez was on the stand again Wednesday, recalling for a federal jury in Brooklyn the song with the you-only-live-once theme that played over and over within earshot of his cell.
To the former lieutenant and confidante of the world’s biggest trafficker, the corrido ballad “Un puño de tierra” (A fistful of earth) sent a clear message that day in 2000: “Once you die, you take nothing with you.”
Hours later, Martinez testified, the dark serenade was backed up by a gunman who entered the penitentiary. He placed the gun to the head of a prison guard stationed near Martinez’ cell. The officer didn’t have the cell key. The gunman then hurled two grenades at his target. Martinez survived by taking shelter behind the bathroom area.
The extradition of the cooperating witness to the United States in 2001 probably saved his life: Martinez has expressed that he believes Guzman wanted him dead.
“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.”
Guzman’s defense lawyers objected to the statement. US District Judge Brian Cogan sustained the objection.
Cooperating witness says he never wanted to testify against ‘El Chapo’
Martinez’ testimony against his former boss explains the trial’s unprecedented security measures, including armed escorts for the anonymous and partly sequestered jurors.
Guzman, 61, has pleaded not guilty to charges of international drug trafficking and conspiracy to murder rivals.
Martinez said during direct questioning that he never wanted to take the stand against Guzman. Courtroom sketch artists were barred this week from drawing Martinez’ facial features. Federal prosecutors had to approve sketches before distribution.
In 1998, Martinez testified, he was stabbed seven times in his cell, his lungs and intestines perforated. One cellmate broke a baseball bat while hitting him.
After surgery, Martinez testified, he was returned to the same cell, where he could hear his attackers sharpening their blades at night. Months later, he was stabbed five to six times in the back. Again, he survived. At another prison, inmates asked him for his shoe size, suggesting he was already a dead man. Martinez said he was later stabbed “all over my face” while making a phone call in the presence of a prison guard.
Martinez testified that he worked for El Chapo in the Sinaloa cartel between 1986 and 1998. Starting on Monday, he described for the jury his experience working with Guzman as he said they moved drugs into the United States by airplane, tunnel, and truck.
Defendant fixes glance on onetime associate
Guzman, wearing a dark suit and tie, fixed his glance on Martinez during his testimony. The witness kept his eyes on his questioner.
Martinez, known by his aliases “El Gordo,” “El Compadre,” or “El Tololoche,” identified Guzman as his boss and said he took orders from no one else at the cartel.
“Él era el jefe,” he said, referring to Guzman — “He was the boss.” They were associates, friends, and “compadres,” and El Chapo baptized Martinez’s son in 1989. He first met El Chapo in late 1986 and last saw him in jail in Mexico in 1994.
Martinez said he was a pilot for the cartel. He was responsible for receiving shipments of drugs from Colombia to Mexico for Guzman, and then those drugs would be sent to the United States. He personally flew in planes with drugs coming from Colombia and directed the Colombian pilot to clandestine landing strips near the Arizona border.
The prosecution witness said his responsibilities later grew, and Martinez opened a few offices for El Chapo in Mexico City. He started speaking directly to the Colombian cartels, organizing and receiving drug shipments, storing them, packaging them and sending them to the United States, all under orders from his boss, he testified.
Sometime around 1990, Guzman and others allegedly came up with a plan to smuggle cocaine to the United States in jalapeño pepper cans. They cloned the labels, logos, boxes and FDA license number of a real company sending cans of jalapeños into the country.
Shipment of pepper cans with cocaine ends up in L.A. store
Martinez, on the stand, recalled learning at one point that a shipment of cans of peppers — with cocaine inside — made its way to a Los Angeles store. A shopper discovered the cans with more than 35 pounds of cocaine in them.
Defense attorney William Purpura, on cross-examination, sought to poke holes in Martinez’s testimony.
The lawyer highlighted inconsistencies in Martinez’s accounts during previous court appearances in his 18 years as a US government witness. After a guilty plea, Martinez received an 18-year prison term. He was released after six years in return for cooperating at trials in California and Arizona.
“I started hating Guzman when he betrayed me and ordered someone to kill me,” Martinez told Purpura.
“Do you hate him enough to lie?”
“No,” Martinez replied.
Martinez’s testimony concluded Thursday morning.