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Colorful cast of cooperators put the heat on El Chapo

December 22, 2018
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This photo combination shows three former associates of Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman who are now cooperating with the United States Attorney's Office in Guzman's prosecution. From left are Tirso Matinez Sanchez, Pedro Flores and Jorge Milton Cifuentes Villa. (U.S. Attorney's Office, Matinez Sanchez; U.S. Marshals Service, Flores; Ariana Cubillos, Cifuentes Villa)

NEW YORK (AP) — One was a gambling addict who got plastic surgery to change his appearance even after his predecessor died from doing the same thing. Another claims to have begun his life of crime at age 4. A third was a kid from Chicago who made a fortune off of drug running.

The three — Tirso Martinez Sanchez, Jorge Cifuentes and Pedro Flores — now share the notoriety of being the most recent cooperators to testify against the infamous Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman at a lengthy U.S. trial that’s heading into an extended holiday break.

Painting a vivid picture of the Colombian-Mexican cocaine bonanza of the 1990s and 2000s, the three admitted narcos described in federal court in Brooklyn the rewards, drawbacks and weirdness of working with the powerful boss of the Sinaloa cartel.

All did so in a coldly calculated betrayal of Guzman that could benefit them in their own drug cases but the defense says also destroys their credibility. Flores, for one, bottom-lined how he flipped on a kingpin this way: “I was trying to set him up.”

Here are some highlights of their testimony:

EL FUTBOLISTA

Like other major drug-traffickers of his era, Martinez made more money than he knew what to do with.

He testified that he used some of it to buy soccer teams in Mexico, earning him the nickname “El Futbolista,” which means “soccer player.” On the downside was a gambling habit that led him to lose a bundle betting on cock fights.

The 52-year-old witness also detailed some of the occupational hazards of living life as an outlaw. He said one of his former bosses shot himself in the head in a drunken ploy to avoid arrest, while another died on the operating table during a plastic surgery procedure to alter his appearance — an outcome that didn’t stop Martinez from getting his own face redone.

Martinez testified that, starting in 2000, he oversaw a Guzman scheme to transport cocaine all the way from Mexico to the New York City area by train using cooking oil tankers with secret compartments. He estimated he made as much as $20 million from the cocaine train operation before he decided to quit because of “too much pressure” from Guzman over losses from seizures.

“They wanted to kill me because I had lost the train route,” he said. “I just didn’t want to keep going.”

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RUNS IN THE FAMILY

Cifuentes’ testimony outlined extreme family dysfunction, describing how his father drafted him at just 4 years old to help move illegal cigarettes and booze through the port in Medellin, Colombia.

He testified that many of his eight siblings were in the drug trade and that they had “conflicts like any other family.” He admitted on cross-examination that his brother had ordered the killing of his nephew, but he explained it was because the nephew wanted to kidnap his own grandmother.

Cifuentes, 55, eventually began shipping Colombian cocaine to the Sinaloa cartel using airplanes made of carbon to deflect radar detection. He described meeting Guzman at his ranch in 2003 where there was a celebration for the second anniversary of the the drug lord’s escape from prison.

Getting there wasn’t easy: A small plane took him to a landing strip that was so short and sharply inclined that he started praying and telling himself that if he survived he would buy Guzman a helicopter so he “would fly in a more civilized way.”

At another meeting in 2009, Cifuentes said he shared a joint with Guzman, who asked how strong it was before he took a smoke. He wasn’t impressed.

“This does nothing to me,” he said.

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THE MAN

Pedro and Margarito Flores were known simply as “the twins” in Sinaloa cartel circle — identical twin brothers from the streets of Chicago who became so good at distributing cocaine to urban centers in the U.S. that Guzman sought them out.

Pedro Flores took the witness stand last week to testify about their wildly lucrative business partnership with Gurzan, still exibiting a sense of awe about the defendant not shown by more-hardened cooperators. While others simply referred to Guzman as Chapo, Spanish for “shorty,” Flores kept calling him “The Man.”

Flores, 37, described how, after becoming a fugitive in Mexico, he and his brother continued running their U.S. network with enough success that he was summoned to a meeting with Guzman in mountains in Sinaloa. He and Guzman’s cohorts were driving up a road to the compound when he was startled to see a naked man, apparently being tortured.

“He was tied to a tree with a chain,” he said, adding that he never learned what happened to him.

In another odd twist, he recounted discussing concerns about the “cover loads” used to disguise drug shipments stashed in trucks — in this instance, 150 live sheep he had to pay $10,000 to put out to pasture.

The stresses of the job and the dangers of a bloody civil war within the cartel convinced Flores to commit munity by contacting U.S narcotics agents. He agreed to record telephone calls, played for the jury, in which an unsuspecting Guzman could be heard calling him his “amigo.”

By associating with Guzman, he said, “I couldn’t promise my family a tomorrow, you know?”

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