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World & Nation

Jurors finally hear from ‘El Chapo’ ... in Sean Penn’s Rolling Stone interview

MEXICO-CRIME-GUZMAN-PENN
A man reads an article about drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who was interviewed by actor Sean Penn for Rolling Stone magazine. Portions of that interview were played at Guzman’s trial Tuesday.
(Alfredo Estrella / AFP/Getty Images)

For the last month, jurors in the trial of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman have had a velvet rope view of one of the most infamous men on the planet. On Tuesday, they finally got to hear him speak.

“Drug trafficking is a culture,” Guzman explained in a brief clip from his 2015 Rolling Stone interview with Sean Penn, parts of which were played in court late Tuesday.

It was a moment hinted at throughout jury selection and teased in opening statements, though defense attorney Eduardo Balarezo was thwarted in his attempt to get the FBI analyst on the stand to name the actor who shared star billing with his client.

“It’s an interview with the defendant,” was all the witness would reveal.

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Instead, Balarezo focused his brief cross-examination on a clip that could serve as a trailer for Guzman’s defense.

“Drug trafficking doesn’t depend on just one person, but on many, many people,” the defendant explained on the tape, while his wife giggled with a friend in the courtroom gallery.

The jury met several of those many, many people this week, including a former Colombian public defender who served as the link between Colombian and Mexican cartels, and a Mexican distributor with an eighth-grade education who squandered millions on cockfights. The third, Jorge Cifuentes, was a midlevel Colombian narco who helped the Sinaloa cartel move 220 tons of cocaine through Mexico to Los Angeles, Houston and New York City.

“This was a family activity,” Cifuentes said of his life in the drug trade. “From the time I was very young, I made cocaine.”

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This was a family activity.
Jorge Cifuentes, Colombian cocaine trafficker

Cifuentes trafficked cocaine in Mexico for about a decade, until his partner was killed in 1998. He fled to Colombia, where he funneled his ill-gotten gains into a dizzying array of legal businesses, from ranching and mining to real estate and clean energy.

“I lost a lot of money learning how to run a legitimate business,” he told the jury.

Cifuentes also sold weapons, supplying thousands of AK-47s and millions of rounds of ammunition to Colombian paramilitaries then at war with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

But the guerrillas were more interested in trafficking narcotics than protecting Cifuentes’ family, and when they pressed him for more guns, he fled back to Mexico to make another go of the drug business. It was then that he sought out Guzman, both to retrieve a tuna boat he’d used to move cocaine, and to seek his protection.

In 2002, he testified, he was flown from an airstrip in Culiacan, Mexico, to a remote runway in the mountains. It was so steep, he told jurors, that the plane must have had special wheels to grip it.

“I had to pray three Our Fathers,” he said of the ordeal. “After that, I resolved to gift [Guzman] with a helicopter so he would fly in a more civilized way.”

The gift was appropriate: The defendant was celebrating the second anniversary of his first escape from prison.

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The tale was one of several laugh lines in a day marked by biting exchanges and bright moments of comic relief.

“I pleaded guilty — as I am,” Cifuentes told the court with a self-deprecating shrug that would quickly become his trademark. He also relayed his first meeting with Guzman’s longtime partner, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, which ended in a shootout with military police. “He would tell all his friends about it, and they would laugh, because I was such a coward,” he said.

Emma Coronel Aispuro
Emma Coronel Aispuro, wife of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, arrives at federal court last week. She's been a regular fixture in the court throughout her husband's trial.
(Seth Wenig / Associated Press)

Defense attorney William Purpura drew a laugh from the court when he told the unlucky gambler Tirso Martinez Sanchez that he “came out better than the roosters though, right?”

Prosecutor Andrea Goldbarg also got a joke in, after the FBI analyst struggled to choose a piece of clothing that would identify the defendant from all the other men in suits in the courtroom.

“Blue tie?” she offered.

“That doesn’t really narrow it down,” Goldbarg replied. “What color is his suit?”

“Blue?” the analyst tried again. “Navy blue?” Another miss. “Him!” she cried, jumping as Guzman popped out of his chair to assist her.

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But it was Judge Brian Cogan who stole the show, peppering proceedings with his snappy retorts.

“Is this going somewhere?” he asked Balarezo at one point.

“We’ll see, your honor,” the lawyer answered.

“All will be revealed,” the judge pronounced, lifting his hands over the courtroom with a grin.

Sharp is a special correspondent.


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