NEW YORK — Chicago-born cocaine trafficker Pedro Flores on Tuesday told a spellbound jury that accused Mexican drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán supplied him with tons of narcotics that he distributed to cities across the U.S.
Baring secrets of Mexico's Sinaloa drug cartel, Flores depicted Guzmán as a gun-toting boss who at least once gave an apparent order to execute an underling — all as Guzmán watched and listened from a seat across the Brooklyn federal courtroom.
After drug seizures, violence and mishaps working with other drug suppliers, Flores said he and his twin brother, Margarito, boosted their profits by expanding their operation to distribute cocaine from Guzmán and another Sinaloa cartel boss in 2005.
Over the next three years, the Mexico-to-U.S. smuggling routes and Flores' distribution system moved multi-kilo loads of cocaine and other drugs to Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Detroit, and Louisville, plus Vancouver, Canada, the self-confessed trafficker testified.
"The farther you get from the (Mexico) border the higher the profit," said Flores, adding that a kilogram of cocaine would sell for $20,000 in New York City, ten times the price in locations farther south.
Flores is the first prosecution witness to provide a detailed look at the sophisticated drug overview of the sophisticated U.S. distribution system, an operation that could result in a life term in prison for the alleged supplier he referred to as "The Man" — Guzmán.
Continuing testimony this week from the 37-year-old witness is expected to feature wiretapped calls of Guzmán discussing cocaine shipments. Flores ultimately turned himself in to U.S. authorities in 2008, becoming a cooperating government witness against Guzmán and others.
His relationship with Guzmán began with a violent abduction, followed by a joke.
Flores said he and his brother fled the U.S. for Mexico after they were charged in a 2004 drug case in Milwaukee. They quickly resumed their operation from south of the border, using cellular phones, he testified.
He told jurors he had a "bad feeling" about a late 2004 meeting with his previous cocaine supplier, a man Flores testified that he later learned worked for Guzmán. The man was angry about a large cocaine shipment that had gone wrong, Flores said.
Arriving at the meeting site in Zapateca, Mexico, Flores said he was beaten with rifle butts by men who appeared to be Mexican government soldiers. He was forced to his knees, blindfolded, stripped to his underwear and held captive for 15 to 16 days, he said, adding: "I thought I was going to die."
However, the captors released him, with one telling Flores that his brother had managed to save him through negotiations.
Following the release, the brothers got instructions to attend a meeting in Culiacán, the capital of Mexico's Sinaloa state. There, they met Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada Gonzalez, one of Guzmán's alleged cartel co-bosses, and others, Flores testified.
The group was impressed with the U.S. cocaine distribution system, Flores testified.
"Any idiot could sell drugs in Mexico. It's very difficult to sell drugs like that in the U.S.," Flores said Zambada told him, then added, "from now on, I'm going to give you some work."
But first, Zamabada said Flores had to meet Guzmán.
To meet his new cocaine supplier, Flores said he and his brother were flown from Culiacan to a crude landing strip cut into the side of a Sinaloa mountain. Then, he was driven in a truck up the mountain, past the fearsome sight of a naked man chained to a tree.
At the top, they entered a large cement building where they met Guzmán, who was wearing jeans, a tee shirt and a hat, and held walkie-talkie radios in each hand. Guzmán's waistband held a handgun, and a high-power AK-47 automatic rifle leaned against a nearby chair, said Flores.
Guzmán noticed that Flores was wearing cut-off jean shorts.
"With all that money, I couldn't afford the rest of the pants?" Flores said Guzmán joked.
Knowing about Guzmán's reputation, Flores said he brought a gift — a pair of 50-caliber gold-plated handguns. The gesture sparked Guzmán's disapproval, however, because the guns weighed roughly 15 pounds apiece, impractical for daily use, Flores testified.
After the meeting, Flores said he and his brother quickly distributed a 500-kilogram shipment of cocaine that Zambada had told them the cartel had already smuggled to Chicago.
The shipment cost $1,000 per kilo less than the price the brothers previously paid, and they made roughly $1.5 million in profit, Flores said.
But they had a problem with the next shipment, their first smuggled directly to their distribution network from Mexico. The 398-kilogram load of cocaine was seized by U.S. authorities in Bloomington, Illinois, roughly three hours from Chicago, Flores testified. Two of his workers were arrested in connection with the seizure.
Flores said he had to meet with Guzmán again, this time to explain what had happened and ensure that the loss was not a theft concocted by the brothers.
Whoever was at fault for the seizure would pay the cost of the loss, he explained to jurors, telling them he brought a copy of the U.S. criminal court complaint filed in the case.
"They were happy with it. They acknowledged that it wasn't our fault," Flores said of the meeting with Guzmán and others.
Another person who had presented a news clipping as proof of a similar cocaine seizure and loss may not have been as fortunate.
Recounting that incident, Flores said Guzmán asked him to read the news story and give his opinion. Flores said he replied that the account "didn't look real to me," and added, "I think anyone could type this up."
In response, Guzmán summoned an aide and issued what appeared to be an assassination order, Flores said.
Afterward, Flores and his brother checked, and found other newspaper accounts that appeared to confirm that U.S. authorities had, in fact, seized the cocaine shipment. They phoned Guzmán's aides, but never learned what happened to the person who reported the seizure, Flores testified.
He took the witness stand following days of testimony from a witness who said he and Guzmán had smuggled tons of cocaine into the U.S. That testimony ended with a defense attorney catching the witness, Jorge Milton Cifuentes-Villa, in an apparent lie.
Cifuentes, who hopes to get a reduction in a potential life prison sentence in exchange for his testimony against Guzmán and others, admitted he broke federal regulations when he used an illegal ruse to arrange a call from a Brooklyn lockup to his brother in a Colombian prison.
Federal prosecutors only learned about the incident later. Cifuentes said he confessed the wrongdoing. "I am conscious of the fact that it was illegal," he testified.
Defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman asked Cifuentes if he had delivered similar falsehoods on the witness stand to help win a conviction against Guzmán — and help his own bid for leniency.
"No, sir," the witness replied.
As he left the courtroom, Cifuentes crossed his arms in front of his chest as he gestured toward Guzmán.
"I don't know what it meant, but I didn't take it positively," said Angel Eduardo Balarezo, a Guzmán defense attorney.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Chicago-born 'El Chapo' cocaine distributor describes national U.S. drug-selling network