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'El Chapo' trial judge orders jury to ignore part of lawyer's arguments

Prosecutors called the defense's statements "wildly improper."

Attorney for Joaquin

Attorney for Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, Eduardo Balarezo(C) arrives at Brooklyn Federal Courthouse before the opening arguments in the "El Chapo" trial on November 13, 2018. - Prosecutors and defense lawyers are set to deliver opening statements November 13, 2018 in the New York trial of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, one of the world's most notorious criminals accused of spending a quarter of a century smuggling cocaine into the United States. (Photo by Don EMMERT / AFP)DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images / DON EMMERT

An ex-leader in Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel gave Brooklyn federal court jurors in the trial of alleged drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera a primer Wednesday on how powder and money flowed freely in a network of gas trucks with hidden tanks and fast boats that reaped profit with relentless efficiency.

Jesus Zambada Garcia, 57, a cooperating government witness who ran Mexico City warehouses that stored 80 to 100 tons of cocaine each year, described at one point how the cartel lost a ship with 20 tons when the crew scuttled the vessel off the Mexican coast near Puerto Vallarta to avoid capture.

He said his brother, Ismail “Mayo” Zambada Garcia, one of the cartel’s alleged principal leaders along with Guzmán, hired a squad of deep-sea divers to find the cargo, which was wrapped in protective layers of rubber, plastic and tape in Colombia to keep it dry.

“Mayo was trying to recover the ship,” Jesus Zambada testified. “Specifically, the cocaine. They did recover it.”

Guzmán, 58, was extradited from Mexico last year to face charges that he ran a $14 billion drug-trafficking empire for a quarter-century, controlling his empire with a combination of bribes to corrupt officials and violence and intimidation to overcome rivals. The trial is expected to last four months.

The appearance of Zambada, one of 16 informants expected at the trial, on the first day of testimony came with an extra layer of intrigue. On Tuesday, defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman argued in his opening that Guzmán was set up at the behest of, according to him, the cartel’s true kingpin, Mayo Zambada, who remains at large.

Testifying through a Spanish interpreter and wearing tinted glasses and a blue prison smock with an orange T-shirt, Jesus Zambada said he had an accounting degree, joined the cartel in 1987 through his brother to arrange a system to track accounts of U.S. customers, and then was arrested in 2008.

He called Guzmán “one of the most powerful drug traffickers Mexico has had,” identifying him in court as the two looked directly at each other without emotion. Zambada also said his brother, Guzmán and two other men were the cartel’s principal leaders, partnering in deals, sharing resources and influence.

“Everything is always shared in the cartel,” he said. “Each one has his own government connections.”

The business model, he explained to the jury, was for the Mexican cartel to invest in cocaine produced in Colombia and elsewhere in South America, then move the drugs across Mexico, smuggle them across the border and arrange delivery to hubs in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City.

Zambada said deliveries from Colombia came on planes but most often by water — on vessels ranging from fishing boats to fast boats — and described Cancun as a frequent site of offloading, where a “human chain” would be used to move tons of cocaine bricks quickly from boats to ground transport.

He testified that two federal Mexican police agencies were on the take, escorting shipments to prevent interference, and the cartel used gasoline tankers that stored the drugs in a hidden compartment.

“This makes the transportation extremely safe because the tank has gas in it … which makes it very difficult for them to detect cocaine,” he testified.

The profit structure that paid for it all, he said, was powerful: In Colombia, cocaine was worth $3,000 a kilogram. Once safely in Mexico, its value rose to $10,000. Smuggled to Los Angeles, it was $20,000; in Chicago, $25,000; and in New York, it reached the jackpot — $35,000.

Sinaloa leaders, Zambada said, invested 50/50 in shipments with Colombian producers. Deducting transportation costs, a 30-ton shipment that arrived safely in New York returned a profit of $390 million. “The profit is very, very much for a small risk,” he testified.

Earlier Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan admonished Lichtman about his Tuesday opening argument claiming that U.S and Mexican officials — including two Mexican presidents — unfairly singled out Guzmán and conspired to frame him while leaving Mayo Zambada untouched.

“Whether the government has acted inappropriately is for me to determine, not you,” Cogan told jurors. That was after Cogan told Lichtman that so-called “selective prosecution” claims were off limits, and that he should stop making arguments that weren’t supported by any admissible evidence.

“Your opening statement handed out a lot of promissory notes that your case isn’t going to cash,” he warned the defense lawyer.

When Lichtman finished his opening on Wednesday morning, prior to the start of testimonies, he focused on the informants the government is likely to call — naming seven of them, and denouncing them as corrupt liars who were falsely accusing Guzmán to win leniency from prosecutors.

The trial is scheduled to resume Thursday morning.

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