Two months before he became the president of Mexico in 2012, Enrique Peña Nieto accepted a $100-million bribe from Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, a witness in the U.S. trial of the drug kingpin testified Tuesday.
Alex Cifuentes Villa, a Colombian who worked closely with Guzman and is awaiting sentencing for drug trafficking, told a Brooklyn court that Peña Nieto had originally asked for $250 million — though he also allowed that “I may have some confusion with the numbers.”
The explosive accusation of corruption at the highest levels of government rocked Mexico, where a string of corruption scandals encircling Peña Nieto left him and his political party deeply unpopular as he finished his term last year.
Peña Nieto did not immediately respond to the testimony. But when allegations of corruption came up earlier in the trial last year, a spokesman for the former president called them “false and defamatory.”
Claudia Ruiz Massieu, who served as foreign secretary under Peña Nieto and is now president of his Institutional Revolutionary Party, released a statement Tuesday saying the bribe allegation “sounds completely implausible to me.”
“Protected witnesses often seek benefits in exchange for saying what the authorities want,” she said. “We have to evaluate these kinds of statements with care.”
As president, Peña Nieto continued the strategy launched by his predecessor of seeking to weaken the country’s powerful drug cartels by killing or arresting their leaders.
It was during his term that Mexico’s armed forces captured Guzman in 2014 only for him to escape before being caught again in 2016.
Peña Nieto’s administration then extradited Guzman to the United States to face trial on charges of drug trafficking and murder.
Peña Nieto “persecuted, captured and extradited the criminal Joaquin Guzman Loera,” Eduardo Sanchez, a Mexican government spokesman, tweeted last year after one of Guzman’s defense attorneys suggested that two Mexican presidents had received bribes from Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel.
On Tuesday in court, Guzman’s defense attorney, Jeffrey Lichtman, said that in meetings in April 2016 and November 2017, Cifuentes told prosecutors that Peña Nieto had reached out to Guzman in 2012.
Cifuentes told them that Peña Nieto, who was elected that July, said that if Guzman gave him money, he wouldn’t have to worry about continuing to run his drug business, Lichtman said.
“The message was that Mr. Guzman didn’t have to stay in hiding?” Lichtman asked Cifuentes.
“Yes, that very thing was what Joaquin told me,” Cifuentes responded.
Cifuentes testified that Peña Nieto received the money through an intermediary in October 2012, two months before taking office.
Peña Nieto was beset by a series of corruption scandals throughout his six-year term.
In 2014, journalists revealed that his wife had purchased a white marble mansion from a government contractor on favorable terms.
He was also accused by journalists of shutting down federal investigations into bribery allegations that involved one of his close aides and the Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht. His Institutional Revolutionary Party was implicated in a nationwide corruption scheme that involved funneling tens of millions of dollars in public funds to help the party’s gubernatorial candidates.
The scandals helped make Peña Nieto Mexico’s least popular president since pollsters began taking surveys in the 1990s, and contributed to his party’s miserable showing in national elections last summer.
Mexico’s new president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, ran on an anti-corruption message and won in a landslide last year as his leftist National Regeneration Movement, known as Morena, swept large parts of the country.
The sprawling drug trafficking case against Guzman has offered a insider’s look at widespread graft involving officials, military and police.
In court on Tuesday, Lichtman said Cifuentes also told prosecutors that a rival drug gang, the Beltran-Leyva cartel, was paying former President Felipe Calderon for military protection against Guzman. Cifuentes, however, said he didn’t remember saying that.
But he did recall other military and police corruption in Mexico. Cifuentes agreed that he told prosecutors that Guzman paid $10 million to $12 million to initiate military operations to kill or capture associates of the Beltran-Leyva cartel.
“Those were the amounts I would hear,” Cifuentes said.
Cifuentes also said he and his wife worked with Mexican federal police to import cocaine from Argentina to Mexico.
“You told them that cocaine-filled suitcases were sent on airplanes?” Lichtman asked Cifuentes.
“Yes,” he responded.
The police would have photos of the suitcases, to identify them, then would then sell the drugs, Cifuentes testified.
“Police were the customers of the drug dealers?” Lichtman asked.
“Yes,” Cifuentes said.
His testimony was scheduled to continue Wednesday.
Special correspondent Plagianos reported from New York and Times staff writer Linthicum from Mexico City.