NEW YORK — Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s life hiding from authorities in the mountains of northwest Mexico was filled with military grade weapons and constant worry over being captured.
The man prosecutors say led the Sinaloa Cartel escaped from a Mexican prison in 2001 by sneaking out in a laundry cart and spent the next 13 years on the run. He would at times hide in the mountains of his home state of Sinaloa in an area called “The Golden Triangle,” known for farms that grow such plants as marijuana and opium poppies, used to make heroin.
Details of his life hiding from authorities were described in a Brooklyn, New York, court on Monday by Alex Cifuentes, who said he was Guzman’s “right-hand man, his left-hand man.” Cifuentes worked as a secretary for Guzman and spent two years living with him in the mountains.
“The most important thing in the mountains is security,” Cifuentes testified. “You have to be watching out.”
With a smile, a nod and his hand on his chest, Cifuentes had begun testifying on Thursday against his former boss, sharing details on Guzman’s directives on drug trafficking and how he evaded authorities.
Cifuentes was arrested in Mexico in 2013 and was later extradited to the United States, where he pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges and entered a cooperation agreement with the US government. He testified in court wearing a navy prison uniform, while Guzman wore a suit and tie.
“It is the first time I’ve seen him wearing a suit,” Cifuentes said, as the courtroom, including Guzman’s wife, Emma Coronel, seated in the gallery, erupted in laughter.
A typical day
For the two years that Cifuentes worked for Guzman in the mountains, “the boss” wore military-style camouflage clothing, and kept a grenade launcher, 40mm grenades, and his signature diamond-encrusted pistol with his initials on it.
When Cifuentes once tried to wear something other than camouflage, he was told to change, “so we would blend into the jungle.”
“They would tell me to change because that could be noticeable from above,” he said he was told by other cartel associates.
Guzman had more than seven homes in the mountains of Sinaloa that he used as hideouts, and they were not luxurious, Cifuentes said, “so that you wouldn’t attract too much attention from the army.”
There were periods when the army closed in on homes where Guzman was staying, and Guzman and his team of security, secretaries and others would hike through the woods to another one of his safe homes.
The homes had tinted windows, electricity, generators, plasma TVs, washers and dryers, and even maids. There were seven maids who would cycle through, and Cifuentes said he believes they were present when drug business was being discussed, but “obviously, they couldn’t repeat a thing.”
On days when the army wasn’t closing in on Guzman, he would wake up at noon and take any messages for him. After lunch, he would take phone calls “under the trees” and handle business.
For a former cartel secretary like Cifuentes, the expectation was that he would handle the logistics of having supplies delivered to Guzman’s hideout by plane. There were multiple layers of security guards: Some were stationed at the perimeters of the hideouts, some were in the area of the airstrips, and others surrounded the home where he’d be hiding. Cifuentes was also given between $150,000 to $200,000 a month for expenses, to handle paying for supplies and paying for staffers like farmers, security guards, messengers, drivers and pilots. Guards, for example, would be paid the equivalent of $2,000 every 20 days, and would then be cycled out. He was expected to take meticulous notes of what needed to be done.
“We all had pocket notebooks like the ones that police had,” Cifuentes said.
Guzman’s love interests were among the special visitors who would come see him on the mountain.
Among them was his wife, Coronel, who watched Cifuentes’ testimony in person in the Brooklyn federal courtroom where her husband’s trial has been underway since November.
“Joaquin asked for her to make enchiladas suizas,” Cifuentes said, echoing text messages between the husband and wife that were intercepted by authorities, in which Coronel texted that “it was her enchiladas that made (Guzman) fall in love with her.”
Prosecutor Gina Parlovecchio asked Cifuentes about other “wives” of Guzman who would visit his hideouts, including a woman known as “Griselda,” who is mother to one of Guzman’s sons, Ivan, and another woman nicknamed “Tinita,” who Cifuentes said would “harvest marijuana (and) sell it in Los Angeles.”
Cifuentes identified Guzman’s voice on a call, on which Guzman is concerned about his phone system and says that once he switches the phones out, “I’ll feel better about going out.”
The party would sometimes come to him, including on his birthday on April 4, 2008, when he was showered with gifts to feed his need for security, including motorcycles, an armored white pickup truck, and a camouflage Hummer with his initials on it.
Orders about drugs
Secure communications were a constant worry for Guzman, who grew concerned after the Mexican government discovered antennas his team had installed in areas around some of his hideouts, Cifuentes said.
He eventually hired a Colombian IT technician named Christian Rodriguez, who installed an office-style extension system for Guzman and his closest family and associates, so they could dial each other by simply pressing a few numbers.
Rodriguez was eventually persuaded to cooperate with US authorities, and gave them access to Guzman’s private conversations with lovers and cartel associates. Rodriguez also helped Guzman by installing spyware onto the devices of Guzman’s close family and associates so he could hear what they were saying about him, Cifuentes said.
“Joaquin was really interested in what people were saying about him,” Cifuentes said. “If it (didn’t) pertain to him, he did not really care.”
The conversations Guzman intercepted gave authorities a window into his cartel’s drug trafficking operations.
One intercepted conversation between Guzman and Cifuentes’ brother, Jorge, discussed the purchase of a state-owned Mexican petroleum company ship that had a submarine-like vessel underneath that Cifuentes said “you could use to load up cocaine.” The purchase never happened.
Another intercepted conversation, between Cifuentes and cartel associate Andrea Velez, captures her dictating a recipe for methamphetamine that Guzman wanted. Cifuentes testified that Guzman wanted to make sure to include a chemical in the meth called “monoethanolamine” because it “causes anxiety to addicts … it makes them more confused.”
Guzman also had intentions that never materialized of crossing drugs from the United States into Canada over a Vermont lake by buying ranch properties with boat access along the lakes, Cifuentes said, and to try to use small helicopters to move loads of about 100 kilos.
In 2008, by the time drugs like heroin and cocaine would reach New York, one of the cartel’s hubs for selling drugs, one kilo, which originally cost cartel members about $2,400, could cost as much as $44,000, according to Cifuentes.
Guzman has pleaded not guilty to charges of international drug trafficking and conspiracy to murder rivals.