El Chapo paid former president $135m bribe, court told

Former Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto (left) allegedly reached out to Joaquin Guzman Loera in 2012.
Former Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto (left) allegedly reached out to Joaquin Guzman Loera in 2012.

NEW YORK • Former Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto took a US$100 million (S$135 million) bribe from Joaquin Guzman Loera, the infamous crime lord known as El Chapo, according to a witness at Guzman's trial.

The stunning testimony was delivered on Tuesday in a New York courtroom by Alex Cifuentes Villa, a Colombian drug lord who worked with Guzman from 2007 to 2013, when the kingpin was hiding from the law at a series of remote ranches in the Sierra Madre.

"Mr Guzman paid a bribe of US$100 million to President Pena Nieto?" Mr Jeffrey Lichtman, one of Guzman's lawyers, asked Cifuentes during cross-examination.

"Yes," Cifuentes said.

Guzman may offer more details soon. Shortly after the jury was excused at around 4.30pm on Tuesday, Mr Lichtman submitted his client's name to the prosecution as a potential witness for the defence.

Guzman's testimony would be a stunning development. While his lieutenants have shared details about the Sinaloa cartel's operations, the kingpin himself could offer even more intimate information, such as how he possibly bribed a president of Mexico.

According to Cifuentes, Mr Pena Nieto first reached out to Guzman around when he was elected president in late 2012, asking the drug lord for US$250 million in exchange for calling off a nationwide manhunt for him. But Guzman made a counter-offer, Cifuentes said, saying he would give Mr Pena Nieto US$100 million.

"The message was that Mr Guzman didn't have to stay in hiding?" Mr Lichtman asked.

 
 
 

"Yes," Cifuentes said, "that very thing is what Joaquin said to me." Mr Lichtman, quoting Cifuentes' notes from an interview he gave to the US authorities in 2016, asked whether Mr Felipe Calderon, who preceded Mr Pena Nieto as Mexico's president, took a bribe in 2008 from one of Guzman's rivals, the Beltran-Leyva brothers.

"I don't recall this incident very well," Cifuentes answered. He added later: "Right now, I do not remember that."

Mr Pena Nieto and Mr Calderon could not be reached for comment.

While other witnesses at Guzman's trial in the Brooklyn district court have testified about payoffs from traffickers to Mexican police and public officials, the testimony about Mr Pena Nieto was the most egregious claim. If true, it suggests corruption by drug cartels had reached into the highest level of Mexico's political establishment.

There had been hints from the start of the trial in November that Mexican leaders might have been compromised by dirty money.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 17, 2019, with the headline 'El Chapo paid former president $135m bribe, court told'. Print Edition | Subscribe