For prosecutors in the trial of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, it seemed like incontrovertible evidence: a series of expletive-laden recordings of the defendant negotiating a massive heroin deal in Chicago.
“Didn’t you just say you could only get rid of a little bit?” says the rapid-fire voice played for jurors Wednesday.
On the other side of the negotiation, which included a proposed $100,000 discount on 20 kilos of heroin, was the man who secretly made the recording, Pedro Flores, a Chicago drug boss turned informant — and now witness on the stand.
But in a stunning twist, Flores told the defense attorney cross-examining him that the voice on the line might not be Guzman after all.
“Do they sound like the same voice to you?” asked attorney William Purpura, having just played a clip from Guzman’s infamous interview with Rolling Stone.
“Not really, no,” Flores answered. “They sound similar, but no.”
He later walked back that statement, saying he knew it was Guzman because of the way that he greeted him — “my friend!” — and because the caller knew details of the heroin shipment.
Besides, Flores told the jury, he’d laid the trap for Guzman himself.
“I was working for the DEA trying to set him up,” the witness explained. “I’m 100% certain it was him.”
The recordings and their provenance were the highlight of Flores’ brief but crucial turn on the stand, likely the capstone of his decade as a professional witness, in which time he has put away scores of fellow drug traffickers who were once among his closest friends.
“You gave each and every one of them up, didn’t you?” Purpura asked.
“I had to, yes,” Flores said, explaining that the government had made clear he could give up everyone or spend the rest of his life in prison.
“What do they call that on the street?” Purpura asked him.
“Snitching, ratting,” the witness replied.
Flores, who was born in the U.S., is the seventh “snitch” to take the stand in a case that rests almost entirely on the testimony of convicted felons.
Unlike the others, he has already reaped many of the benefits of cooperation, including a sharply reduced sentence, immunity for his wife and a pair of rare S visas for his Mexican father and a brother, granting them temporary residency and a pathway to citizenship in the United States.
Flores came across as gentle and trustworthy, a stark contrast to the murderous Colombian kingpin Juan Carlos “Chupeta” Ramirez Abadia, the cowering Sinaloa cartel lieutenant Miguel Angel “El Gordo” Martinez, and the combative narco family prince Jorge Cifuentes.
Prosecutors sought to paint their witness as a hopeless romantic. Flores confessed that, while in prison, he “abused” the legal phone in prison to call his wife after he’d exhausted his monthly minutes, paid another inmate to erect billboards declaring his undying love for her and “snuck away with her to the bathroom and got her pregnant.”
“It was actually my wife’s idea,” Flores told jurors, explaining how the pair had gone to wash baby bottles together during a family visit at the office park where he and his twin brother were being debriefed by the Drug Enforcement Administration. “[The guards] were distracted. I wasn’t thinking clearly.”
He explained that they had used a similar ruse on another occasion.
“Not once but twice?” Purpura challenged.
“Yes,” the witness said.
Purpura did his best to bloody that fairy tale, accusing Flores of arranging the killing of a former buyer whose pregnant girlfriend later married Flores’ twin.
“You and your brother didn’t kill Rudy Rangel? Not for the woman and not for the 200 kilos [of stolen cocaine]?”
“No,” the witness said.
Flores seemed to endear himself to jurors, who laughed when Flores cracked jokes and exchanged bright looks of surprise when he recounted the rendezvous in the toilet.
The defense’s suggestion that he could have doctored phone calls he taped with a digital recorder from a Mexican Radio Shack seemed to fall on deaf ears.
“I just know how to press record and stop,” the witness said.
Sharp is a special correspondent.