Cartel Watch

The Secret Witnesses Against El Chapo May Be Cartel Leaders

Colombian drug lords like ‘The Rabbit’ and ‘Lollipop’ may testify against the biggest narco of them all.

01.27.17 6:15 AM ET

Colombian cartel leaders may be the key to locking up El Chapo forever.

The Department of Justice promised its case would be based on “a large coterie of cooperating witnesses” in a detention memorandum issued when Joaquin Guzman Loera was extradited last week, “including dozens of witnesses who have had face-to-face dealings with Guzman.” Some of the witnesses are easier to identify. Among the “U.S.-based distributors” are likely nearly certain to be a pair of Chicago-based twins whose turn on El Chapo made headlines in 2015. The Flores brothers recorded countless conversations with the Sinaloa Cartel’s top leaders for law enforcement—and even with El Chapo himself.

But the memo also promised that “numerous Colombian Cartel leaders and other suppliers” would tell the world about shipping literal tons of cocaine to the Mexican cartel leader. The Colombians are also expected to “quantify the astonishing illegal profits that Guzman made from the sale of drugs.”

Mexican drug cartels like El Chapo’s began their southward expansion over the last two decades, slowly but surely trying to control greater parts of the chains of production. To do so, they often partnered with local Colombian cartels and trafficking organizations, who had resources and connections the Sinaloa Cartel may not have had south of the Mexican border.

“They have become the criminal organizations that control huge portions of the distribution chain,” Steven Dudley, a co-founder of InSight Crime and longtime monitor of the drug trade, told The Daily Beast. “They might have the buying power or capital to get a seat at the table… but [Mexican cartels are] not necessarily the ones controlling the territory or having the mini-armies that you see in Colombia.”

There’s no way to know for sure who will be called upon to put El Chapo away. Keys to El Chapo’s Colombian connection, according to the Department of Justice’s own releases, may lie with an infamous Colombian cartel, a drug dynasty with ties to the country’s former president, and a 20-year-long relationship between Colombian drug leaders and American officials. A look at past cases, expert analysis, and the Latin American press suggests some possible candidates.

THE RABBIT

El Chapo may have been the world’s most wanted man, but he was far from the first Mexican cartel leader to be arrested and brought to the United States for trial. Another longtime Mexican cartel leader, Alfredo Beltran Leyva, pleaded guilty to trafficking charges last year. (The Beltran Leyva brothers had been members of the Sinaloa Cartel until a recent split.)

But El Mochomo’s plea came only after prosecutors revealed a long list of cooperating witnesses who would help put him away if the case went to trial. El Chapo and El Mochomo’s cases are so intertwined that they were charged together on a 2009 indictment.

Among the ex-Colombian cartels testifying against El Mochomo was Harold Mauricio Poveda-Ortega, or The Rabbit, a Colombian liaison between the Sinaloans and the Cartel de Norte del Valle. His wealth and spending habits bordered on fantasy: Among the assets seized from him during a 2008 raid in Mexico were two pet lions. The Rabbit’s time ran out when the DEA infiltrated his networks.

There’s good cause to believe that The Rabbit’s tale might also be used against El Chapo.

In his role as a liaison between the Sinaloans and the Colombian cartels, The Rabbit likely has intimate knowledge of important parts of El Chapo’s American indictment, such as routes used for smuggling cocaine into the United States and getting money back out. He sent as many as 150 tons of cocaine from Colombia to the Sinaloans in Mexico over a decade, according to the DEA.

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Untold amounts of that wound up in the United States. And The Rabbit wound up as a U.S. government witness.

THE LOLLIPOP

Another of El Chapo’s Colombian contacts was rounded up in Brazil in 2009. Juan Carlos Ramírez Abadía, a leader of Colombia’s Norte del Valle Cartel known as “Lollipop,” was living large when he was extradited to the U.S. Eastern District. Lollipop had amassed inordinate amounts of wealth through his nefarious activities, at one point even owning a Caribbean island later confiscated by Colombia.

He’d also undergone heavy plastic surgery. Lollipop’s mugshots show him almost ghoul-like, with scars crisscrossing his scalp.

But the American pursuit of Colombia’s kingpins caught up with him all too quickly. The leader of one of Colombia’s most powerful cartels faced justice in a Brooklyn courtroom.

There, he pleaded out, forfeiting billions of dollars in an agreement. (His case, like El Chapo’s, was handled by Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Goldbarg, an Argentine-American.) Lollipop was accused of racketeering, illegal trafficking of cocaine, money laundering, bribing Colombian officials, and kidnapping, torture, and murder of rivals and informants. They cartel dealt primarily in processing raw cocaine paste for distribution, according to the indictment.

But his case was resolved quietly, apparently because, after arriving in the U.S., Lollipop cooperated with authorities. Court records are scant about his direct ties to El Chapo, but he was also listed among the expected cooperating witnesses in the Beltran Leyva case.

The Norte del Valle Cartel is said to have pushed more than 500 metric tons of cocaine from Colombia to Mexico as one of the Sinaloa Cartel’s largest partners.

THE INVISIBLE CLAN

But other Colombian partners alluded to in the government’s statements accompanying El Chapo’s extradition have not yet publicly cooperated.

As the Sinaloa Cartel expanded south, Colombia’s “Invisible Clan” was looking for a solid Mexican partner after surviving a bitter war between Colombian drug lords, BBC Mundo reported. The Cifuentes Villa siblings were already down two, but they were not defeated: Francisco, a one-time pilot and trafficker for Pablo Escobar and Fernando, once the leader of the family’s drug trafficking organization, had been assassinated.

The family business thrived at the hands of Jorge Milton Cifuentes Villa, who partnered with El Chapo and the Sinaloa Cartel, according to a criminal complaint filed in Florida’s Southern District in 2010. Jorge Milton was charged alongside his sister Dolly and brother Hildebrando “Alex” Cifuentes Villa, as well as El Chapo and another alleged trafficker.

They were charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine and multiple counts of cocaine distribution. Jorge Milton and Otto Javier Garcia-Giron, the other alleged co-conspirator, were also charged with offenses like money laundering.

Altogether, the Cifuentes Villa clan is accused of helping El Chapo smuggle tons of cocaine from Colombia into the United States. A 2011 infographic released by the U.S. Treasury Department designated Jorge Milton as a drug kingpin, and placed him side-by-side with El Chapo above an organizational structure that reads oddly like a Cifuentes Villa family tree.

Jorge Milton allegedly posed as a legitimate businessman in other Latin American countries to help launder money for the family’s trade.

Over the last decade, all three surviving Cifuentes Villa siblings have found their way to American soil. Dolly was extradited to the U.S. in 2012, followed by Jorge Milton in 2013, and Hildebrando, or “Alex,” in 2015.

(Attorneys for Jorge Milton and Alex declined to comment.)

Dolly pleaded guilty to one count in a closed hearing. She has already served her short sentence and is believed to have returned to Colombia, but her attorneys said she did not betray anyone in the course of her plea deal.

Indeed, in Colombia, Dolly is equally well-known for her scandalous personal life: She had two children with the brother of former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who portrayed himself as a tough-on-drugs ally of the United States. Ana María Uribe Cifuentes, President Uribe’s niece, is also an alleged member of her mother’s trafficking family.

But the cases against Jorge Milton and Alex are still pending in Florida and New York, with no resolution in sight. They appear to be the only Colombians charged alongside El Chapo in any of the half-dozen cases against him.

And of course, the cooperating witnesses may also come from elsewhere entirely.

“Since the Colombian government reinstituted extradition in the 1990s, they have extradited hundreds of suspected drug traffickers to the united states,” Dudley, of InSight Crime, said. “So [the U.S.] understanding of drug trafficking in the region is largely based on the amount information they’ve been able to accumulate.”

At a certain point, Dudley said, Colombians began to understand that being indicted in the U.S. set the countdown on the end of their criminal careers: It was only a matter of time before they would be captured. Some even started meeting with U.S. law enforcement ahead of time, offering cooperation in exchange for immunity.

“It was a means by which you could kind of preempt capture and extradition,” Dudley said. “It was an escape path.”