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Judge in 'El Chapo' trial stops witness from recounting payoffs to politicians, including Mexico's president-elect

Judge in 'El Chapo' trial stops witness from recounting payoffs to politicians, including Mexico's president-elect
Jesus "El Rey" Zambada Garcia, a onetime deputy to Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. (Alberto Vera / AFP-Getty Images)

One of the most important cooperating witnesses in the prosecution of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman appeared poised to implicate Mexico’s president-elect in corruption on Tuesday while recounting payoffs to high-level politicians — until he was stopped by the judge.

Defense attorney William Purpura led former Guzman deputy Jesus “El Rey” Zambada Garcia through a tightly choreographed dance around allegations about which the court had limited testimony during a lengthy sidebar before jurors were brought in Tuesday morning.

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After an extended back-and-forth about bribes that the witness said he paid Mexico’s former top cop, Genaro Garcia Luna, on behalf of his brother, Sinaloa cartel boss Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, Purpura asked about a man named Regino, whom Zambada Garcia identified as a deputy to then-Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

“And what if any relationship did Regino have to Lopez Obrador?” Purpura asked, before Judge Brian Cogan sustained an objection from federal prosecutors, preventing him from giving an answer. Instead, the defense lawyer pressed the witness over exactly how much money Regino had received at their meeting in 2005.

“I’m not sure, but it was a few million dollars,” Zambada Garcia replied. “It was paid to him because it was said he was going to be the next secretary of security, and if so it would be for our protection.”

Within minutes, Gabriel Regino Garcia, a professor of criminology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, tweeted out a fierce denial.

“It’s false that during my exercise of public service, I received any bribe from on behalf of the witness Jesus Zambada,” he wrote.

Lopez Obrador is the president-elect of Mexico.

It’s not the first time Guzman’s lawyers have sought to paint Mexican politicians as corrupt, nor fought with the court over what role that alleged corruption can play in their case. Defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman was warned to steer clear of it in the second half of his opening statements last week, and Cogan ruled to curtail what Purpura could ask about corruption Tuesday in his cross-examination of Zambada Garcia.

“Individuals and entities who are not party to this case would face embarrassment and harassment if this information were made public,” Cogan told the court Tuesday morning. He ruled that the entire half-hour sidebar would be kept out of the public record, and that prosecutor’s motion to exclude such testimony would be redacted before it was entered.

Still, Purpura got close to asking the question.

“If Mayo could corrupt the president of Mexico, he’d do it, wouldn’t he?” the lawyer asked.

“Perhaps,” the witness answered.

Zambada Garcia testified that he had twice bribed Garcia Luna, first when he was head of the Federal Investigation Agency and again when he was the secretary of public safety in charge of Mexico’s federal police. Both times, the witness testified, he met the police official in a restaurant, where he gave him millions of dollars on behalf of his brother, “El Mayo.” He also testified that drug traffickers had put together $50 million in protection money for Garcia Luna.

The exchange was part of a long and at times testy back-and-forth. Purpura attacked Zambada Garcia’s credibility, picking apart previous depositions from scores of government “proffer sessions” in which the witness had detailed his associates’ crimes to federal investigators.

“You and your brother Mayo met with Luna in a restaurant some time between 2005 and 2006. Do you remember that?” the attorney asked.

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“No, not right now,” the witness replied. “That’s a mistake,” he elaborated when shown a transcript of his previous deposition. “I met with my brother’s attorney and with Luna — just like that, there can be a lot of mistakes with the interpreter.”

The bribery accusations capped close to four days of testimony from Zambada Garcia, who nodded to Guzman as he stepped down from the stand. Just before the cooperating witness was led from the courtroom for the last time, his old boss nodded back.

Sharp is a special correspondent.

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