When Miguel Angel Martinez took the stand in the third week of the Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán trial, he revealed the innermost details of one of the world’s most formidable and murderous transnational crime groups.
During the first two days of gripping testimony, he revealed the secrets of the Sinaloa drug cartel, which was operated like a large corporation, comprised of accountants, secretaries, hitmen, money launderers, airplane pilots, boat captains, and drug smugglers.
Martinez was himself a former member of the cartel, and a close friend, or “compadre” of Guzmán. (El Chapo was the godfather of his son).
As his former boss fixed him with an icy glare, he described a business that took place both on the ground, and in the air.
Martinez, a pilot who had his own nickname of El Gordo (Fats), would fly small planes from Colombia to Mexico carrying around 1,000 kilos of cocaine on each flight. On numerous occasions, El Chapo would join him. The flights took place in remote areas like the Colombian jungle to avoid Government interference.
In fact, that was one of the reasons Martinez rose to become a key cartel operative. He was first recruited into the group because of his specific knowledge of “clandestine landing strips,” or plane runways that were in rural areas and undetectable to the authorities. He recalled one landing strip where they had to push cows of the way.
And the flights were risky.
El Chapo paid off certain Government officials in Mexico to land the planes, but on one occasion, Martinez and his co-pilot ran out of gas ten minutes away from their destination. However, they couldn’t land the plane just anywhere with all the drugs, and so they were forced to fly to their destination with no engines and no gasoline.
According to Martinez, the co-pilot was an experienced flyer, so he was able to use the air current to drift to their destination (he was also a U.S. Navy pilot at the time.)
When members of the cartel spoke on the radio, they used code language to avoid any US interference. “We have code for everything,” Martinez said. “Guzmán would say ‘organize a party’ and that meant get ready to land planes. Shirts meant cocaine. Girls meant planes. Documents meant money.”
El Chapo received up to ten planes in one day, which made him “very happy.” “He said compadre, now it’s a great party,” Martinez recalled.
Guzmán owned offices all over Mexico city to orchestrate his drug business. Cartel operatives posed as attorneys and had to move frequently to avoid suspicion. Martinez said El Chapo was in the office a few times a week.
But Guzmán also owned many ranches along the beach so he could receive drug shipments via drug boats. From 1990 to 1995, the drugs were transported by ship and posed as fishing boats and shrimp boats– a tip they said they received from Mexico’s then-acting Attorney General.
El Chapo paid off government officials at the highest level, according to Martinez. He paid the attorney general millions of dollars in exchange for protection, and tips. The AG told El Chapo to switch to boat transportation to avoid interception by the U.S. Government.
The boats would carry up to 14 tons of cocaine in shipment containers disguised as bath tubs, Martinez recollected.
While El Chapo’s thriving drug business was pouring in money–he kept 45 percent for himself and his men and the Colombians took the other 55 percent– the downfall of his reign started when the drug wars began, Martinez said.
The drug war between the Sinaloa cartel and Tijuana cartel led to a bloodbath in Mexico that was hard for authorities to ignore.
El Chapo would hire gunmen, known in Spanish as “pistoleros,” to kill members of the Tijuana drug cartel, or any of Chapo’s enemies.
Martinez heard El Chapo describe at least 20 killings, and his hitmen described another 20 as well.
The “pistoleros” were equipped with Ar-15 guns, grenades, tear gas, bombs, pistols and other weapons that were imported from Pakistan on a monthly basis, Martinez said. They drove around in armored trucks and wore bullet proof vests.
El Chapo had 25 pistoleros defending him, and another 100 protecting the cartel.
But on one deadly occasion, the pistoleros were not by his side. At the Guadalajara airport in Mexico in 1993, the Tijuana cartel was tipped off that El Chapo’s security would be low. They met him in the airport parking lot and chased Guzman through the airport, firing shots.
El Chapo escaped through the luggage belt and ran to a local highway, but Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo, who was standing right in front of the drug boss, was shot and killed in the crossfire.
After that, El Chapo gained national attention. He was on the cover of every national magazine. A month later, he was arrested, and he would start the beginning of life on the run.
Martinez’ testimony will continue all week.
Megan Hadley is a senior staff reporter for The Crime Report.