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A witness more brutal than 'El Chapo' testifies in drug lord's trial

A witness more brutal than 'El Chapo' testifies in drug lord's trial
Photos provided by federal prosecutors show former Colombian drug lord Juan Carlos "Chupeta" Ramirez Abadia, a witness in the trial of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, before, left, and after his three surgeries to change his appearance. (Associated Press)

From the moment Colombian cartel boss Juan Carlos “Chupeta” Ramirez Abadia sat down to testify against Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, no one in the courtroom could tear their eyes from his surgically mutilated face. But it wasn’t until his third day on the stand that he was unmasked as a monster — in the first strong showing for Guzman's defense.

Known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” the longtime head of Colombia’s brutal North Valley cartel underwent multiple surgeries to disguise his identity while on the lam in Brazil. Between the mid-1980s and his arrest in 2007, he ran a vast narcotics empire, working hand-in-glove with the Sinaloa cartel to move dizzying quantities of cocaine from Colombia through Mexico to the United States.

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He is also a killer, who pleaded guilty in a U.S. court in 2010 to ordering the murders of at least 150 people and personally shooting one victim in the face. He has not yet been sentenced, but hopes to have five years shaved off his prison term in exchange for his testimony.

On Tuesday, jurors learned that he tracked each of those assassinations in the very same spreadsheets U.S. Atty. Andrea Goldbarg had combed over and over again for close to two days of direct testimony, while many had struggled to stay awake.

And this, this is a reference to the payment for the murder of three people, correct?” defense attorney William Purpura asked the witness just minutes into his cross examination Tuesday morning.

“That’s correct,” Ramirez Abadia replied.

“And do you know the names of these three people who were killed?” Purpura asked.

“I do not recall them, no,” the witness said.

He did, however, know how much their deaths had cost him — $45,000 for the set.

“If we went through all these ledgers, we would find around 150 notations of money spent on these killings, correct?” the lawyer pressed.

“I haven’t counted them, but it’s possible,” the witness said.

In that moment, Ramirez Abadia went from the government’s star cooperating witness to a compelling argument against his own prior testimony.

As cunning, ruthless and extravagant as Guzman was in his heyday, his Colombian supplier was that much more so. Everything Chapo did, Chupeta did bigger, whether it was the volume of cocaine he controlled, the size of his palatial homes, or the extremes he took to evade capture and extradition to the U.S. To Ramirez Abadia, Guzman was a middle man, albeit a crucial one. Guzman is fighting charges of drug trafficking, conspiracy to commit murder and weapons violations. Ramirez Abadia admitted to all of them, gleefully.

Indeed, until Tuesday, the most striking thing about the prosecution’s latest witness was just how little he revealed that jurors didn’t already know. The trafficking routes he drew mapped onto other witnesses’ routes, his drug prices their prices. His own detailed spreadsheets clearly indicate a long and lucrative partnership with the Sinaloa cartel. Though events sounded slightly different from the Colombian perspective, the details were all the same, down to Guzman’s beloved “Reina” brand of cocaine.

Goldbarg lavished special attention on the drug ledgers, which document the minutia of two men’s criminal conspiracies. But on cross examination, Ramirez Abaida quickly stole the spotlight from the man he was there to testify against, eclipsing two days of direct examination in little more than three hours on Tuesday.

Even on direct examination, Ramirez Abadia came across as equal parts venal narcissist and grotesque villain, his features so marred by the scalpel that he appeared more plastic than human. In three days of testimony, his expression never changed, whether he was attempting to recall the young Colombian prosecutors who were executed on his order on a highway outside Cali, or the hundreds of tons of his drugs the Sinaloa cartel moved across the border between Mexico and the United States.

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He barely blinked when asked about the man who had prepared the ledgers he had been reading for days, a top lieutenant named Laureano Renteria, who was also one of his closest friends. Renteria was poisoned in Colombia’s maximum security Picota prison not long after his arrest.

“And when he died, all of your secrets died with him, isn’t that correct?” Purpura asked.

“He died and he knew a lot about my organization, that’s correct,” the witness said.

In fact, Ramirez Abadia showed distress only twice — both times over losses of drug revenue.

There was the captain who’d scuttled his boat in the Pacific in the throws of cocaine psychosis, losing his life and his cargo in the process.

“He started to see ghosts everywhere, American Coast Guard everywhere, and he sank the ship with my 20,000 kilos of cocaine,” Ramirez Abadia recalled with a sigh. “I saw all that sea and I became very sad. I said, they’re never going to find it.”

Worse still were the pair of his drug boats — Juanita 8 and Juanita 9, which, along with sister vessels Juanitas 1 through 10 occupied several soporific hours of direct examination — that were seized in September of 2004 by U.S. authorities.

“That’s a tragedy for me as a drug trafficker,” Ramirez Abadia confessed. “In my entire history as a drug trafficker, I’d never had two ships seized by the United States.”

Despite his disfiguring surgeries and obvious ill health, the witness also displayed bright flashes of vanity. On Monday, he insisted on narrating every job in his narco empire as though he himself had performed it, visibly bristling when he was corrected.

“Many times I would sell it myself in Los Angeles … ” he began, before Goldbarg once again asked him to clarify that in fact he had not done that, because he had not set foot in the country since he was arrested in Miami with a fake passport in 1988.

It was the third such exchange in less than 10 minutes.

“I am always referring to my lieutenants, but because the cocaine was mine, it belonged to me, I always say I sold it,” Ramirez Abadia snapped back, striking his chest with his palm to emphasize the point.

His flare for the dramatic was matched only by the defense, with Purpura drawing a near constant volley of objections as he battled toward the climax of his cross examination, during which he probed the witness on the 25-year sentence he hoped to receive in exchange for his testimony, a total he noted was equivalent to 60 days per murder.

Yet, on redirect, the prosecution barely acknowledged what had happened, asking only briefly about the bloody events that had jurors on the edge of their seats after days of nodding and yawning.

“As a leader of a drug cartel, why did you engage in violence?” Goldbarg asked.

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“It’s impossible to be a leader of a cartel in Colombia without violence,” the killer said.

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