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At 'El Chapo' trial, ex-mistress testifies about tunnel flight

Lucero Sanchez Lopez, a former mistress to Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera, described how she and the alleged drug kingpin used a tunnel under a bathtub to get away during a surprise raid in 2014.

Joaquin

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera is on trial in a federal drug trafficking case. Photo Credit: Charles Reed / ICE via Getty Images

Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera’s colorful two-month-old Brooklyn federal court drug trial got personal Thursday as an ex-mistress sobbed, recounted the love, fear and confusion of their romance, and described fleeing a surprise raid with the naked alleged kingpin into a fetid tunnel under a hydraulic bathtub.

Lucero Sanchez Lopez, 29, a former Mexican state legislator who got involved with Guzman at age 21, said they were in a bedroom at a safe house in Culiacan in 2014, when the pre-dawn banging of a battering ram and the sight of men with helmets on a security monitor sent her lover, an aide named Condor and a maid scrambling into the bathroom.

“Love, come in here!” Guzman beckoned. Inside, she testified, the tub had been raised from the floor, and the other three had disappeared down wooden steps into a pit. “I said, ‘Do I have to go in there?’ ” she testified. “We were in complete darkness. It was horrible. It was a humid place, with water, with mud.”

After Guzman and Condor opened a door, she said, they raced ahead and left the women to keep up, running and feeling their way in darkness through a passage she estimated at just 1 1/2 meters high, until they emerged at a river. She told a prosecutor she wasn’t sure how long they ran.

“More than an hour, I think,” she testified. “Enough to traumatize me.”

Sanchez, in U.S. custody facing drug charges, was the twelfth former associate to testify as a cooperating government witness at the cocaine trafficking trial of Mexico’s alleged Sinaloa cartel leader Guzman, 58, but the first to give a live account of an escape through one of the tunnels he also allegedly used to smuggle drugs and flee prison.

She said she became romantically involved with Guzman — married, with twins — in 2011, and the two communicated on secure phones provided by his aides and met at locations where she was taken blindfolded.

But within a year, Sanchez said, he forced her to take on dangerous work, making marijuana buys in the “Golden Triangle” of the Sinaloa mountains for no pay, and warning her that lying about her drug duties could be a problem. Later, she said, he used her to help set up shell companies.

The court appearance was a struggle. She displayed a repeated facial tic while testifying, and broke into tears during a break, her sobs filling the courtroom when she was ushered into a side room with a live microphone. She told jurors she remained “confused” about her relationship with Guzman, which they never fully broke off.

“I didn’t want him to mistrust me because I also thought that he could hurt me,” she said at one point. “Sometimes I loved him, and sometimes I didn’t, because of different attitudes he had at different times.”

Sanchez said they lived together for some periods and she acted as a housewife, buying clothes and personal items for a mate who couldn’t go out in public. But sometimes it was scary, she said — recalling Guzman’s reaction when an aide interrupted a quiet dinner to tell him about the death of an associate.

“He turned and looked at me,” she said. “He said from that point on whoever betrayed him was going to die, whether it was family or women or whoever ratted him out.”

Guzman’s wife, Emma Coronel, watched his girlfriend’s appearance from a second row seat, but deflected a request for comment afterward. Lucero’s testimony will resume next week.

She was preceded on the stand Thursday by a federal drug agent embedded with Mexican marines in 2014, who described the background of the raid that Lucero fled from that February and the capture of Guzman a week later.

Agent Victor Vazquez said the team, using U.S. intelligence and isolated from corrupt Mexican police, staged a series of rapid fire raids that month to try to catch Guzman and other cartel leaders, and located the house where he was staying with Lucero in Sinaloa’s capital of Culiacan squeezing a cartel lackey named “Nariz” — for his big nose.

He said like other Guzman safe houses, it was equipped with a steel-reinforced door that took time to break down and closed-circuit TV that gave the occupants a head start, and they used hidden tunnels to outrun marines who chased them and others pulling up manhole covers outside.

After Guzman’s narrow escape, he said, the team kept up the pressure, raiding a series of safe houses where they found weapons caches — including Guzman’s signature pistol with a diamond studded “JGL” monogram — and drug stashes, that included a box of plastic green bananas filled with cocaine.

When they finally learned Guzman had fled to the beach resort of Mazatlan, he said, the squad had to use unmarked cars and dress in beach clothes to avoid detection by cartel lookouts posted on the road from Culiacan.

Just before dawn on Feb. 22 at the high-rise Miramar Hotel, one marine was posted outside to watch balconies during the raid — “there’s no tunnels in this hotel, I hope,” Vazquez said — and he was notified with the code “777” to go inside for an identification when Guzman was caught.

Guzman was kneeling, with his wife Emma and children nearby. “I froze myself," he said. “I said holy . . . it is him. He looked at me, I looked at him and said, ‘It is you.’ ” 

The drama turned out to be short-lived. Guzman later escaped from prison, and had to be apprehended again before he was extradited to the United States. The trial is scheduled to resume Tuesday.

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