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Cartel contact led ex-president's security detail, 'El Chapo' informant testifies

A top-level Sinaloa Cartel informant testified at the trial of alleged Mexican cocaine kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera that the head of former President Vicente Fox's security detail was a key government contact.

Alleged drug kingpin Joaquin

Alleged drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is on trial in a federal courtroom in Manhattan. Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images

The latest high-level Sinaloa Cartel informant to appear at the Brooklyn federal court trial of alleged Mexican cocaine kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera testified Wednesday that the head of former President Vicente Fox’s security detail was one of the cartel’s key government contacts.

Vicente Zambada Niebla, the son of cartel co-leader Ismail “Mayo” Zambada García, told jurors that after Guzmán’s 2001 prison escape in a laundry cart, it was the head of the presidential detail who disclosed a military operation closing in on Guzmán that allowed cartel allies to spirit him to safety by helicopter.

“There is an operation . . . Please tell my compadre Chapo to leave,” was the message the highly placed source — identified as a “Colonel Adams” by Zambada  — passed to his father Mayo.

Guzmán, 58, is charged with using violence and murder to control a multibillion-dollar trafficking operation that spread rampant lawlessness in Mexico over two decades, and the role of official corruption has been a continuing theme since the trial of the legendary alleged drug lord began in November.

Appearing as the trial resumed after a two-week holiday break, Zambada — known as “El Vicentillo” — was the eighth cooperating witness to testify. Others have included Colombian cocaine suppliers, American distributors, and his uncle Rey Zambada, the brother of Mayo Zambada, who is still at large.

Vicente Zambada, 43, was ushered into the courtroom Wednesday by five guards after jurors left for his entrance. Wearing a blue prison smock and gray T-shirt, he nodded and shot Guzmán a cocky smirk across the courtroom as he stood and waited for the jury to return.

He said he joined the cartel in the 1990s. His father’s code name had been “la cocina”  or “the cook,”  and his own was “la mecera” or “the waitress.” His duties included handling drug traffic in Mexico, drug sales in the United States and the repatriation of cash, he said, as well as passing messages to his dad and “corruption.”

Zambada said that as a trusted manager of the cartel’s operations until his arrest in 2009 and extradition to the United States in 2010, he met and spoke with Guzmán “hundreds” of times. “I was in charge of all my father’s businesses, and for compadre Chapo as well,” he testified.

Over six hours, he described how the cartel received drugs from Colombian suppliers and moved them across Mexico and the border, talked about Guzmán’s role in meetings and feuds that led to violent wars with drug trafficking groups, and said cartel payments to corrupt officials topped $1 million a month.

In Sinaloa and its capital city of Culiacan, he testified, multiple military and police officials were on the payroll for a $30,000 to $50,000 monthly “salary,” in addition to “bonuses” paid on behalf of his father and Guzmán whenever a big drug shipment was allowed to arrive in their home state.

His uncle, Rey Zambada, previously testified about massive payments to federal officials in Mexico City. Vicente said other cartel bosses oversaw similar payoffs in key locations throughout the country, and described how his father put a top general from the Mexican defense secretariat on the payroll after being warned that other cartels were trying to buy military support.

After a five-hour meeting, he said, “My dad gave him $50,000 and put him on a monthly salary.”

In 2008, just before his arrest, Zambada testified, he attended a meeting between his father, Guzmán, and a group of government officials and executives from the state-owned Pemex oil company who proposed a partnership using a Pemex oil tanker.

“They were saying they wanted to transport 100 tons of cocaine on that ship,” he testified, and his father and Guzmán agreed to see if they could set up a shipment that large with their Colombian suppliers.

Zambada said he was arrested before finding out whether the deal worked out. Previous witnesses have said it didn’t. Prosecutors, who have asked for the names and roles of minor members of the Sinaloa cartel, did not ask Zambada to identify the Pemex executives and government officials who made the proposal.

Facing charges that could carry a life sentence, Zambada said he agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with U.S. officials in 2013 in hopes of leniency at sentencing. He said the government permitted his family to come to the United States “for their safety” as part of the deal, and he agreed to a $1.37 billion forfeiture.

His testimony is scheduled to resume on Friday.

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