The first three times Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman tried to have his top lieutenant killed in prison, he sent men with knives. The fourth time, he sent a brass band.
“They were playing a song Mr. Guzman used to like very much,” Miguel Angel “El Gordo” Martínez testified at the trial of his former boss this week. “They played it one time after another after another. They played it 20 times that night.”
He explained that the corrido, “Un Puño de Tierra,” lauds “living life intensely” because the only thing you take with you when you die — in the words of the title — is a fistful of dirt.
Two hours after the music stopped, he watched from a hand mirror as a single assassin with a pistol tried to force his way into his cell, lobbing two grenades his way after a struggle with the guard. Martinez survived the explosion by cowering near the toilet.
The next year — 2001 — he was extradited to the United States.
The tale was the chilling apex of four days of gripping testimony from one of the prosecution’s most closely held cooperators, a man so menaced by the Sinaloa Cartel that the judge prohibited courtroom artists from drawing his face.
The drama continued Thursday with the testimony of another former drug trafficker, Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia, a Colombian whose North Valley Cartel was a major supplier to Guzman’s organization.
Jurors stared in wonder as an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration unboxed almost 10 kilograms of cocaine — enough to fill a large trash bag — and placed it on a table in front of them.
Then Ramirez — better known as Chupeta, or “lollipop” — took the stand. He looked like a comic book villain, with a cleft chin, leonine cheekbones and a grossly distended jawline that was the result of multiple plastic surgeries aimed at concealing his identity when he was a fugitive in Brazil.
“I altered the physical appearance of my face by changing my jawbones, my cheekbones, my eyes, mouth and ears,” he testified.
He also explained to the jury that he had ordered the assassinations of roughly 150 people and personally shot one in the face in 2004.
By comparison, Martinez came across as a mild-mannered uncle.
Since he got out of prison 11 years ago, he has lived in the United States as a professional witness, his endless appearances in courts across the country a condition of the visa he hopes to receive.
The so-called S visa is a rare but powerful tool used by the government to retain witnesses who agree to provide information against a criminal enterprise or terrorist organization. Securing one would allow Martinez to remain in the United States, where he is currently in witness protection. But at the end of four days of damning testimony, that hope dangled just out of reach.
“Up to this date, have you received your S visa?” defense attorney William Purpura asked.
“No,” the witness replied.
Guzman faces charges of drug trafficking, conspiracy to murder and firearms violations. His trial began early this month and is expected to last until February.
Martinez’s value to the prosecution is hard to overstate. Unlike cartel deputy Jesus “El Rey” Zambada Garcia, who testified for three days before Thanksgiving, Martinez worked directly under Guzman, starting as a pilot in the 1980s and rising to become one of his top lieutenants.
When the boss was arrested in connection with the murder of beloved Mexican Cardinal Juan Jesus Posada Ocampo in 1993, Martinez became a sort of surrogate, managing the cartel’s vast and sophisticated drug trafficking operations in his absence.
In a series of intercepted calls played for the jury on Wednesday, he and fellow high-ranking cartel member Enrique “El Doctor” Avalos, discussed drug tunnels, warehouses, train routes and even their own frustration at working for Guzman’s brother, Arturo, while their boss was in a Mexican prison for drug trafficking.
In one comic exchange, Avalos, who was arrested in Los Angeles in 1994, relayed a story about a shopper who’d discovered a stash of cocaine inside a can of chili peppers. “Well, he came back and bought the entire pallet,” he laughs on the tape — but in a twist, it wasn’t the Comadre brand the Sinaloa Cartel used to smuggle drugs into the United States, but a competitor’s knockoff.
Martinez was so close to his boss, he even cared for Guzman’s wives and children, he told the court.
“I never failed him, never stole from him, never betrayed him, I watched over his family,” he testified Wednesday. “The only thing I received from him was four attempted attacks against me, without saying anything.”
It was precisely that betrayal that Guzman’s defense sought to exploit under cross-examination, pressing him over and over about just how much he now hates the man he once served.
“I started hating Mr. Guzman when he betrayed me and sent someone to try to kill me,” Martinez told the jury.
“But you hate him, correct?” Purpura said.
“Yes,” the witness replied.
“Enough to lie about him?”
“No,” Martinez said.
Purpura also hammered Martinez on his longtime drug use. At one point, he poured a packet of Splenda on the court projector to demonstrate the size of a gram of cocaine, lining three more up beside it to indicate how much the witness would snort in a day.
“Don’t break our machine,” Judge Brian Cogan warned.
But the bulk of cross and redirect were spent dissecting transcripts from Martinez’s dozens of other depositions and turns at the witness stand, combing for inconsistencies.
Purpura read part of a transcript in which the witness recounted two gruesome prison stabbings, not three as he’d told the court just a few minutes before. On Thursday, U.S. Atty. Michael Robotti read another portion of the same transcript in which Martinez detailed the third attack, during which he was slashed in the face.
Robotti also used part of his lengthy direct examination to draw out details about Martinez’s cooperation, including the anxiety that haunts his life in hiding and his reluctance to appear at Guzman’s trial, where he’d been subpoenaed to testify.
“I can’t sleep,” Martinez said.
Purpura pushed on with his suggestion that the bad blood between his client and the witness ran so deep that Martinez would say anything to see Guzman behind bars.
By the time he was dismissed on Thursday, Martinez had been asked more than a dozen times whether his testimony was bought with the promise of an S visa or fabricated out of hate.
“Mr. Martinez, have you lied to this jury?” the prosecutor asked.
“No,” the witness answered.
A moment later, he stood up, his head bowed, and hurried for the exit, shuffling through the heavy double doors and back into anonymity.