DEA's first steps to catch 'El Chapo' revealed in court

Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Victor Vazquez on Wednesday shed light into how the operation to capture the notorious drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman began.

Speaking in Guzman's corruption trial, Vazquez said he was born in Mexico, joined the DEA 15 years ago and was assigned a post in Mexico City from 2009-2014. During that time, one of his main jobs was to investigate the Sinaloa cartel which led him to focus on the "capture and extradition" of its "leaders," whom he identified as Rafael Caro Quintero, Mayo Zambada and "El Chapo."

Guzman faces life behind bars in the U.S., while Quintero and Zambada remain fugitives.

Vazquez not only was present for Guzman's capture; in fact, he was the DEA's lead liaison with the Mexican marines. He said he was the one "suggesting to use the marines specifically for this operation" due to his "relationship with them, their success and reputation." Vazquez said he'd been a marine himself before he joined the DEA.

"We took the (Mexican) federal police out and only involved the marines," added Vazquez.

This operation began on January 19, 2014, in La Paz, Baja California, Mexico, the witness said. Vazquez told the court that agents didn’t want to get into Culiacan, which he described as entering "the lion’s den." He added, "You’re going into the base of the most powerful cartel in the world."

At first, they tried capturing Zambada as their prospects for nabbing Guzman's partner were more solid, Vazquez testified. The coalition of approximately 100 people, about half flying over in Black Hawk helicopters, searched for Zambada in the outskirts of Culiacan, but did not find him.

However, before Vazquez could continue, court adjourned for the day.


Earlier Wednesday, the court heard more from Alex Cifuentes, a so-called "secretary" to El Chapo. Cifuentes told the jury about a Chapo associate getting hats and T-shirts made with a Sinaloa cartel logo. In addition, he said Guzman, who wanted a movie made about his life, once said in an interview with a producer that the Mexican army had smashed his hands with their rifles’ butts and "tied his feet to a rope and turned him upside down" hanging from a helicopter.

Jeffrey Lichtman, left, cross-examining Alex Cifuentes on Wednesday. "El Chapo" in the foreground.

Jeffrey Lichtman, left, cross-examining Alex Cifuentes on Wednesday. "El Chapo" in the foreground. (Sketch by Jane Rosenberg)


Cifuentes revealed earlier this week that the defendant told him he paid bribes to former Presidents Enrique Pena Nieto and Felipe Calderon of Mexico -- claims that both presidents have denied. Cifuentes said Wednesday his family paid Oscar Naranjo, a former vice president of Colombia and national police general known for his tough stance on drug trafficking, to keep them safe. Naranjo also has denied Cifuentes' claims.

Judge Brian Cogan signaled he wanted to limit what was being said in court about the supposed bribes, saying there was a "mountain" of information but "no evidence" to prove the allegations. Defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman said prosecutors could "be desperate to protect the Mexican government."