As Vincente Zambada Niebla took the witness stand in federal court Thursday, he turned to the man on trial and nodded his head.
Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, his former boss and Mexico’s most notorious drug lord, returned the gesture with a slight grin.
The two men have known each other for nearly three decades. Zambada is the son of Guzman’s longtime partner, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who has purportedly taken over as head of the Sinaloa cartel.
Now Vincente Zambada, 43, was testifying against him, one of dozens of witnesses cooperating with prosecutors and the first to take the stand after a holiday break in the trial, which started nearly two months ago and is expected to last at least another month.
Guzman, 61, faces charges of drug trafficking, conspiracy to murder and firearms violations.
Zambada, who wore a blue prison jumpsuit, remained calm, even laughing a few times as he gave his insider’s view of the cartel.
Always referring to Guzman as “mi compadre Chapo,” he described how he gained more responsibility and trust in the network and over time came to work closely with him.
“The goal, like any other business, was to make money,” he said. “With money, you gain power, corruption.”
Zambada, who was arrested in 2009 in Mexico City, detailed how he oversaw the transport of thousands of kilos of cocaine from Colombia, through Mexico to the United States in cars, boats and even submarines.
He described how his father and Guzman spent more than $1 million a month to pay off a vast array of Mexican state police, military leaders and other officials in order to move drugs and get insider information about rival gangs.
One of the more colorful moments in his testimony came as he offered details of Guzman’s famous 2001 escape from a Mexican prison in a laundry basket.
Zambada said Guzman told him he could hear the clicking of the doors as he was being wheeled through the prison covered in blankets and sheets — and that at one point the cart rolled backward and he was afraid he’d fall out.
Guzman told him it felt like the escape “took forever,” but that after passing the final barrier “some seconds later, it opened up and he was free.”
Soon after at a meeting in the mountains of Sinaloa, Zambada testified, his father told Guzman, “I’m 100% with you,” solidifying their partnership with a pact to share their kilos of cocaine 50-50.
Defense attorneys for Guzman contend that the older Zambada has always been the cartel boss, and that the prosecution of their client is a cynical “frame-up” by the U.S. and Mexican governments.
Vincente Zambada, who faces 10 years to life on drug-trafficking charges, said he agreed to testify in hopes of a reduced sentence. His wife and family have been brought to the U.S. for protection.
He is expected to take the stand again Friday.
Plagianos is a special correspondent.