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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 February 2019

El Chapo associate says kingpin paid $100 million bribe to former Mexican president

Enrique Pena Nieto has previously denied taking bribes and his former chief of staff refuted the latest claim

Recaptured drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman is escorted by soldiers at the hangar belonging to the office of the Attorney General in Mexico City, Mexico, January 8, 2016. Reuters
Recaptured drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman is escorted by soldiers at the hangar belonging to the office of the Attorney General in Mexico City, Mexico, January 8, 2016. Reuters

The former president of Mexico, Enrique Pena Nieto, took a $100 million bribe from Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, according to a witness at the alleged druglord’s trial.

In a stunning testimony, Alex Cifuentes, Guzman's former secretary and aide, had already revealed how Guzman was able to benefit from his enormous wealth during his years on the run in the Mexican mountains, surrounded by plasma TV screens at his seven or more homes as he worked on a project to turn his life story into a movie.

He described the alleged bribe under cross-examination.

Jeffrey Lichtman, one of Guzman’s lawyers, asked: “Mr Guzman paid a bribe of $100 million to President Pena Nieto?”

“Yes,” answered Cifuentes.

Mr Pena Nieto has previously denied taking bribes and his former chief of staff took to social media to deny the latest claim.

“The declarations of the Colombian drug trafficker in New York are false, defamatory and absurd,” wrote Francisco Guzman on Twitter, adding that the Pena Nieto government was responsible for detaining and extraditing the man accused of running the powerful Sinaloa cartel.

The allegation is one of the most explosive to emerge from two months of testimony that has offered a rare glimpse inside Mexico’s drug industry.

Guzman, 61, was extradited to the US in 2017 to face 17 charges of trafficking cocaine, heroin and other drugs into the country. He denies the charges and his lawyers argue that he is being set up as a fall guy for more powerful figures.

He may yet take the stand in his own defence. Mr Lichtman on Tuesday asked the court to list his client as a potential witness – a move that allows the prosecution to prepare for his appearance but does not necessarily mean that he will do so.

In this file photo taken on November 29, 2018 Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto, waves upon arrival at Ezeiza International airport in Buenos Aires province. AFP
In this file photo taken on November 29, 2018 Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto, waves upon arrival at Ezeiza International airport in Buenos Aires province. AFP

Much of the prosecution case relies on former allies of Guzman who have offered to give evidence in return for reduced sentences.

Last week, however, the jury heard from the cartel’s IT chief who described helping federal investigators gain access to encrypted servers and hundreds of telephonic and electronic communications.

This week, Cifuentes testified about the two years he spent with Guzman as they eluded the army in the Sinaloa mountains.

He said Mr Pena Nieto first approached Guzman while he was president-elect in October 2012, offering to call off a nationwide manhunt in return for about $250 million. They eventually agreed on $100 million, he explained.

Cifuentes also testified that Guzman once told him that he had received a message from Mr Pena Nieto saying that he did not have to live in hiding any more.

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Read more:

US trial of Mexican drug lord ‘El Chapo’ gets under way

Jury selection begins for El Chapo trial

El Chapo gripes about cash flow ahead of trial

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Details of the alleged bribe first emerged in court during the defence’s opening statement in November, which claimed Guzman was being framed by corrupt investigators and Mexican politicians.

At the time, the former president’s spokesman insisted the allegations were not true. “The accusations made by his lawyer are completely false and defamatory,” he said.

Mr Pena Nieto was once a rising star of Mexican politics, coming to power at the head of the Institutional Revolutionary Party. But by the time he left office in 2018 he was dogged by a weak economy, rising crime and a string of scandals, including corruption allegations and conflict-of-interest claims.

During his evidence, Cifuentes also offered an array of details of other bribes offered to lower level politicians and the police.

On one occasion, he said traffickers passed to police photographs of suitcases stuffed with cocaine flying in from Argentina so they could collect them from the baggage carousel and sell the drugs themselves.

Cifuentes, who described himself as Guzman's “right-hand man, his left-hand man”, offered more details of life on the run earlier in his testimony.

He described a daily routine that involved Guzman rising at noon before taking the day’s messages from his secretary. After lunch – often enchiladas – he would stroll among the mountain trees using a cordless phone to make his calls.

He said he lived with Guzman at a number of mountain bolt-holes as they evaded the Mexican army.

They had “everything we needed”, he said, including satellite TV, a plasma screen and maids to look after them.

At one point, Guzman began work on a book about his life, said Cifuentes, with the aim of turning into a film that he would direct.

“The idea came from my first wife Angie… because he was always in the news, in the newspapers,” he said.

“He should do a movie about his life so he could make money instead of the papers. He loved the idea.”

But there were near misses too. On one occasion, with the military closing in on their mountain camp, Guzman ordered his men to grab their weapons and flee.

“We were running practically all night,” said Cifuentes, before trucks picked them up and took them to another hideout.

Updated: January 16, 2019 07:38 PM

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