By Alan Feuer
On most days, while hiding at one of his secret compounds deep in the Sierra Madre, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the Mexican drug lord known as El Chapo, liked to rise at noon.
Once awake, a secretary would bring his daily messages. After lunch — if his wife was there to cook for him, often enchiladas — the kingpin would grab a long-range cordless phone and stroll beneath the trees, returning his list of calls.
This idyllic image of the crime lord on the run was described Monday at Guzmán’s drug trial in New York by Alex Cifuentes Villa, a Colombian trafficker who once served as his secretary and close personal aide.
In his second day of testimony, Cifuentes led jurors not only through details of the kingpin’s life on the lam, but also of his own role in almost every aspect of Guzmán’s business: how on behalf of the defendant, he struck cocaine deals in Colombia and Panama, sold methamphetamines with the Mafia in Canada, repatriated profits through an insurance firm in Atlanta and bought grenades (and rocket-propelled launchers) from a corrupt Ecuadorean military officer.
Portly, bald and a recipient of a double corneal transplant, Cifuentes was so close to the kingpin, he testified last week, that Guzmán liked to call him both his “right-hand” and “left-hand” man. The two men lived together at several mountain hideouts, conducting their business and playing cat and mouse with the Mexican army, from 2007 until Cifuentes was arrested in 2013.
Though Guzmán lived and worked in several different cities at the start of his career, he fled to the mountains outside Culiacán in 2002 or so after he escaped from prison (the first time) in the bottom of a laundry cart. For more than a decade, Cifuentes said, Guzmán shuttled back and forth between seven different properties, all of them in a rural region called the “Golden Triangle,” where most of Mexico’s pot and poppy plants are grown.
The accommodations at the compounds were rustic, mostly composed of “humble pine huts,” Cifuentes said, with barracks for the drug lord’s 50-man security team. But behind their tinted windows, Guzmán’s personal houses had all of the amenities: a washer/dryer, a satellite dish and a DVD player hooked up to a plasma-screen TV.
Aside from his bodyguards, Guzmán was tended to in the mountains by a pair of maids and a small staff of assistants who would write down tasks in hand-held notebooks, Cifuentes said, and manage the accounts for the $200,000 the kingpin spent monthly on payroll, provisions and as petty cash. The assistants also kept track of Guzmán’s appointments, scheduling visits from his wife, his business partners and several of his mistresses.
Cifuentes was working as one of these assistants in late 2007 when he received an unusual assignment: He was asked to help make a film about his boss. The idea, he said, had come from his own former wife, who thought it was unfair that the media was profiting from the kingpin’s cinematic story. The plan, Cifuentes said, was to have Guzmán write a book. This literary property would then be turned into a movie, he explained, so the crime lord “could make the money.”
Despite being short on experience, Guzmán wanted to direct. The team even hired a producer from Colombia, Cifuentes said. But like so many other films, the project never quite got off the ground.
(The book manuscript apparently still exists. Cifuentes said a first draft was delivered to one of Guzmán’s sons. A second draft was sent to “the lawyers,” he explained.)
Naturally, activities like writing film scripts were put aside when the Mexican army launched operations targeting the compounds. The raids became more frequent, Cifuentes said, in 2008 when Guzmán went to war with the Beltrán-Leyva brothers, his cousins and former allies. Feeling the heat, the kingpin and his entourage would change camps every 20 days or so. New bodyguards would be hired to protect the new locations. As a security precaution, Cifuentes said, the old guards would not be told where the crew was headed next.
But even facing capture — or rather, recapture — Guzmán tended to be cool and collected, Cifuentes said. His staff often less so. One of his assistants, for example, would regularly wake the crime lord in a panic, Cifuentes said, telling him the troops were drawing near. Guzmán would scold the man, insisting that he only needed a five-minute head start to escape.
“Even if I’m naked, I’ll run away,” Cifuentes quoted him as saying.