A top lieutenant to drug kingpin Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán was sentenced Friday in a Virginia courtroom to life in prison, judicial sources say.
Damaso López, a leader known as "The Lawyer" in Mexico's Sinaloa drug cartel, was captured in May last year and extradited to the United States two months later. He pleaded guilty in September in an Alexandria federal court to drug-trafficking charges.
The life sentence was expected after both sides agreed to a life term as part of a plea bargain.
In court papers, López admitted he was a senior leader in the Sinaloa cartel and controlled a faction with hundreds of men. He admitted using sicarios, or hitmen, to conduct murders to further the cartel's interest and move tons of cocaine and other drugs throughout the Americas.
He was considered a potential witness against Guzmán, who is currently on trial in New York. According to the US Department of Justice, López was the deputy head of a Mexican maximum security prison in 2001 when he helped Guzmán escape. He then joined the cartel as Guzmán's lieutenant.
It is unclear whether López would be called to testify at Guzmán's trial. The publicly available court documents from the plea agreement do not include a requirement for cooperation, as they usually would. But several documents in the case remain under seal.
In court papers, prosecutors said the cartel generated billions of dollars in illegal profits.
"Simply put, the defendant had a leadership role in the Sinaloa Cartel, the largest and most violent drug trafficking organization in the world," prosecutors wrote. "It would be hard to imagine a more egregious drug offense."
The US trial of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán has offered a screenplay-worthy picture of the lawlessness and excesses during his rise to power as Mexico's most infamous drug lord.
Since the trial got underway on November 13, witnesses have described how Guzmán used tunnels dug under the border and fake jalapeño cans to smuggle tons of cocaine into the United States during the 1990s and early 2000s.
The Sinaloa cartel, sometimes referred to by insiders as "The Federation," made hundreds of millions of dollars, most of it in US currency collected in such volume it had to be stashed in safe houses while the gang figured out what to do with it. Guzmán spent some of it on a private zoo, a diamond-encrusted pistol and paying off police and politicians.
That's all according to a cast of characters who have taken the witness stand ranging from former cartel members to a Colombian drug kingpin with a freakish face that he chose to alter with plastic surgery in a failed attempt to stay under the radar.
Here's a look at some testimony highlights from the trial, which is expected to last until early next year:
Smuggling by the ton
The Sinaloa cartel had many crafty ways to smuggle drugs across the border, but perhaps none were craftier than “La Comadre” brand pepper cans.
Former cartel member Miguel Ángel Martínez, who is now a prosecution witness, testified in federal court in Brooklyn he helped supervise a warehouse in Mexico City where workers hid cocaine in the cans so it could be trucked over the border.
The trucks carried 3,000 cans at a time to Los Angeles, he said. He estimated about 25 to 30 tons of cocaine worth US$400 million to US$500 million got across the border each year.
Behind the scenes, the workers packing the coke into the cans "got intoxicated because whenever you would press the kilos, it would release cocaine into the air."
Proceeds ended up in Tijuana, where Guzmán would send his three private jets every month to pick it up, Martínez said. On average, each plane would carry up to US$10 million home.
The cash, he said, helped pay for luxuries like an Acapulco beach house featuring a private zoo and a trip to Switzerland for Guzmán to get an exotic "anti-ageing" treatment.
Bribery as usual
A turncoat cartel member named Jesús Zambada took the stand to describe how he kept watch over tons of cocaine stashed in a Mexico City warehouse. But a more important job for him was buying off authorities at a cost of about US$300,000 a month — a price that earned Guzmán a police escort after one of his notorious escapes from prison.
He testified that Guzmán looked troubled at the sight of the Mexico City police approaching the car. "Don't worry about it," Zambada told Guzmán. "These are our people. No-one is going to touch us from here on out."
Testimony suggested the prisons were on the take, too. Martínez claimed when he and Guzmán visited a drug boss behind bars, other inmates had put together a lavish meal.
"There was a music group and they had everything, whatever you would want to eat. Whiskey, cognac," Martinez said. "You could choose between lobster and sirloin and pheasant."
The latest star witness for the government has been more notable for his appearance than his testimony.
Former Colombian drug lord Juan Carlos Ramírez Abadia, also known as "Chupeta," or lollipop, is notorious for having multiple plastic surgeries to alter his face and evade authorities. He told the jury last week that he has had at least three surgeries to change his appearance.
The work altered "my jawbone, my cheekbones, my eyes, my mouth, my ears, my nose," he said.
His testimony made a case for ranking him at the top of the narco-patheon with Guzmán: He said he smuggled 400,000 kilos (881,840 pounds), ordered 150 killings and amassed a fortune so large that he forfeited US$1 billion after his arrest in Brazil in 2007.
Ramírez Abadia said he had a cartel business model that included a division entirely devoted to using drug money to bribe authorities to "not do their jobs" to enforce drug laws. He testified that it was clear Guzmán had similar arrangements when he flew planes loaded with Colombian cocaine to Mexico, where they were greeted by police officers who helped unload the goods.