No wall between the U.S. and Mexico was going to stop notorious drug dealer El Chapo.
The cartel leader now on trial in Brooklyn Federal Court got his illicit goods across the border all kinds of ways — with planes, trains, cars, tractor trailers and oil tankers, fishing boats and even submarines, to name but a few modes of transportation mentioned by nearly a dozen cartel members in trial testimony.
The government case says El Chapo — whose formal name is Joaquin Guzman Loera — was responsible for about 220 tons of illicit drugs seized in the U.S. and Canada between 1989 and 2014. Those drugs are valued at a colossal $14 billion.
For context: That’s more than enough for a line of cocaine for every man, woman and child in America, federal prosecutors say.
Of course, those 220 tons are just the drugs the government seized. Judging from trial testimony, El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel likely got away with smuggling untold tons of drugs into the country.
President Trump insists he won’t let much of the federal government reopen unless Congress agrees to appropriate $5.7 billion for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump says the wall will help solve the opioid crisis, which is now claiming more American lives than the HIV epidemic at its height.
“Our southern border is a pipeline for vast quantities of illegal drugs, including meth, heroin, cocaine and fentanyl,” Trump said in his prime time address Tuesday. He claims that a “common sense” physical barrier will “secure the border and stop the criminal gangs, drug smugglers and human traffickers.”
If El Chapo could weigh in, he might disagree.
The man once described by the U.S. Treasury Department as “the most powerful drug trafficker in the world” earned his reputation as king of the narcotraficantes by virtue of his innovative cross-border underground tunnels.
Jesus (El Rey) Zambada Garcia — the brother of Ismael (El Mayo) Zambada, Chapo’s longtime partner in crime and the man believed to be leading the Sinaloa Cartel currently — told jurors in November that tunnels were a complete game-changer for the cartel.
“It’s the most secure way to cross drugs over to the United States,” Zambada Garcia said. “And it’s the securest way for the money that’s being returned back.”
Not only did the tunnels aid in getting drugs into the United States — they gave the cartel a way to smuggle weapons back into Mexico.
The first witness to testify at Guzman’s trial, U.S. Customs agent Carlos Salazar, walked the jury through the 1990 discovery of a tunnel that originated in Agua Prieta, Mexico and ran beneath the border to a warehouse in Douglas, Ariz.
The tunnel — its Mexican entrance was beneath a pool table — was about half the length of a football field and featured a ventilation system, lighting and a track that allowed tons of cocaine to be wheeled with ease into the U.S.
One of Chapo’s former henchmen, Miguel Angel Martinez, testified in November about advanced smuggling techniques employed in the early 1990s whereby the cartel would traffic cocaine over the Tijuana border to Los Angeles on trucks ostensibly importing canned jalapeno peppers.
Chapo did his homework: The cans, which were packaged in a warehouse in Mexico, featured labeling cloned from an actual FDA-approved pepper company.
Anticipating inspections at the border, workers placed gravel inside the tins so that they would sound like they had something inside. During the early 1990s, the Sinaloa Cartel moved 25 to 30 tons of narcotics each year — yielding a profit of $400 million to $500 million — through legal ports on entry by hiding drugs in the pepper cans.
Nearly all of the government informants to testify at Guzman’s trial have made clear that bribery was the oil that made the cartel machine run smoothly.
El Rey Zambada testified in November about making monthly payments on his brother’s behalf to high-level Mexican officials in the early 2000s that totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Sinaloa Cartel leaders padded the pockets of people in the office of the Mexican attorney general, state, federal and local police, investigators from the homicide unit, airport authorities and more.
“Interpol, as well,” Zambada told the jury.
Jorge Milton Cifuentes Villa, one of Guzman’s Colombian counterparts, told the jury in December about bribing the head of the Ecuadorian army to transport cocaine for him.
“Army trucks aren’t searched, so there’s no danger of losing the cocaine,” he said.
Several witnesses at Guzman’s trial have testified about using trains to traffic vast amounts of narcotics to major U.S. cities like New York, L.A. and Chicago.
Martinez testified in November that between 2000 to 2003, he was charged with overseeing cocaine shipments smuggled within rail tanker cars purporting to transport cooking oil.
Martinez said train tracks were installed inside warehouses in Mexico City, where workers hid thousands of kilos of cocaine inside secret compartments in the tankers.
A few inches of oil added to the tankers threw Customs and Border Protection agents’ dogs off the scent.
Martinez and Pedro Flores, a former Chicago-based drug dealer who took the stand in late December, estimated the trains successfully moved 30 to 50 tons of cocaine — valued between $500 million and $800 million — between 2000 and 2003.
With air and land conquered, Guzman sought to expand his operations out to sea in the late 2000s, when his workers began transporting drugs in narco-submarines.
In early December, Coast Guard Lt. Commander Todd Bagetis described a daring operation in which his team was “hanging on for their dear lives” when narcos manning a self-propelled, semi-submersible vessel — containing $100 million worth of cocaine — reversed the engines in an effort to throw them off deck during a 2008 raid in the dark of night.
Coast Guard Adm. Charles Ray wrote to U.S. senators in September 2017, stating that America’s maritime responders had gathered intelligence on 80%-90% of drug shipments in the eastern Pacific and Caribbean oceans.
Most of the drugs get by law enforcement — “we only have the capacity to get after about 30% of those,” Ray said.