NEW YORK — The stories of dead bodies piled up high Monday as jurors at the trial of Joaquín Guzmán Loera heard gruesome testimony about six brutal drug war murders.
One of the victims nearly had his head cut off by a fusillade of gunfire. Another was killed on his doorstep after being lured from home by false news that his son had just been run down by a car.
A third made a small, but fatal, error: He refused one day to shake Guzmán’s hand.
Last week, the federal prosecutors trying Guzmán, the Mexican drug kingpin known as El Chapo, offered evidence about the gothic bloodshed his cartel routinely committed. But as the proceeding entered its second week, the government began to tie that violence directly to Guzmán.
Instead of these gory tales, the courtroom audience had expected a prosecution witness, Jesus Zambada García, to confess to a bombshell act of corruption. Last week, in a private sidebar conversation, Guzmán’s lawyers said Zambada would testify to having paid at least $6 million to the “incumbent president of Mexico.” That testimony never came Monday, but it may Tuesday when Zambada returns to the stand.
But no less than a half-dozen times, Zambada, said Monday that Guzmán, his former boss in the Sinaloa drug cartel, had arranged for people to be killed for seemingly minor reasons. In what was Zambada’s third day as a witness, Guzmán emerged as a kind of gun-loving hothead who owned a diamond-encrusted pistol with his initials on the handle and who once relaxed by taking target practice with a bazooka.
From the start of the trial, which is being held in Federal District Court in Brooklyn, prosecutors have accused Guzmán not only of earning $14 billion by routinely shipping ton-sized batches of drugs into the United States, but also of taking part in more than 30 murders. Zambada began Monday to describe some of those killings, starting with the slaying of Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes, a former member of the Sinaloa cartel.
In 2004, he said, Guzmán and Carrillo Fuentes were rivals as part of a larger war between the Sinaloa traffickers and a vicious gang, the Zetas, with whom Carrillo Fuentes had allied himself. At a meeting to restore the peace, Guzmán’s longtime partner, Ismael Zambada García, tried to broker a truce. But when Guzmán put his hand out, Carrillo Fuentes did not take it.
Not long after, Zambada said, armed assassins lay in wait for Carrillo Fuentes and his unsuspecting wife, gunning both down as they exited a movie theater in Culiacán. “Chapo said he was going to kill him,” Zambada told the jury.
The following year, a similar fate befell Julio Beltran-Leyva, another of Guzmán’s former allies. According to Zambada, Beltran-Leyva had disobeyed an order not to send a shipment of cocaine from Acapulco. At Guzmán’s behest, Zambada testified, a team of assassins attacked Beltran-Leyva, firing so many rifle rounds at him that his head was left dangling from his neck.
It was clear from Monday’s testimony that drug trafficking, especially in Guzmán’s orbit, was not an occupation that promoted health or longevity. People around him seemed to die with alarming frequency.
There was, for instance, his younger brother, Arturito Guzmán, who was murdered in prison on New Year’s Eve in 2004. There was also a police officer who usually stayed at home out of fear, but walked outside into a spray of bullets after one of Guzmán’s killers knocked on his door and shouted — falsely — that his child had just been hit by a car.
Even those who endured the violence surrounding Guzmán required a level of machismo to survive. One gunman, caught in the crossfire of Beltran-Leyva’s murder, was knocked unconscious for five or 10 minutes with a head wound, Zambada said. When he finally awoke, the gunman dismissed the wound as “a scratch.”
William Purpura, one of Guzmán’s lawyers, asked Zambada a few questions Monday afternoon, largely pointing out that in prior statements he had never mentioned Guzmán in connection with some of the murders the government accused him of committing. Purpura also suggested that Zambada was a liar who could say whatever he wanted since most of the people who could corroborate — or refute — his account were dead.
Purpura noted that Juan José Esparragoza, Guzmán’s mentor, who knew him better than anyone, was dead — and so was Guzmán’s brother, Arturito. Guzman’s former ally, Amado Carrillo Fuentes — a brother of Rodolfo — was also dead, Purpura said, having bled to death in 1997 while undergoing plastic surgery.
“All of them are dead,” Purpura told the witness. “So there’s really no one but you, correct?”
Zambada readily agreed.
“Fortunately,” he said, “I’m alive.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.