Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, Sinaloa cartel drug boss, is on trial in the US. Picture: AP

Secret messages of $19 billion narco empire

MEXCIAN drug kingpin El Chapo used secret codes to smuggle thousands of kilos of cocaine into the United States, one of his senior cartel members told a New York court.

The notorious Joaquin Guzman Loera, aka El Chapo (meaning "shorty"), would allegedly ask his employees to "organise a party" on the nights he wanted to bring planes packed with narcotics from Colombia to Mexico.

He referred to cocaine as "shirts", his planes as "girls", jet fuel as "wine" and money as "documents", said former cartel member Miguel Angel Martinez.

"We had codes for everything," the government witness told Brooklyn Federal Court on Monday. "Mr Guzman told me to always be very careful because the American government could be listening to our conversations.

With glamorous wife Emma Coronel Aispuro there to support him, El Chapo listened alertly as the long list of his alleged crimes was recounted. There was a ripple of shock when - despite tight security and x-ray machines at the entrance to the building and courtroom - Ms Coronel was seen breaking the rules by taking a mobile phone into court.

Prosecutors claimed in documents filed on Tuesday that Guzman was secretly communicating with his beauty queen wife. The couple are banned from contact for security reasons.

The court filings referred to a "determination by the Attorney General that communications and contacts between the defendant and other persons could result in death or serious bodily injury to others."

The prosecution said the "impermissible" contact happened "in concert with a lawyer visit to the defendant following two trial days last week."

US District Judge Brian Cogan instructed Guzman's lawyers to respond by week's end to the complaints but said any immediate concerns had already been resolved.

The judge earlier ruled that Guzman could not even hug his wife ahead of the trial.

Sketch artists were asked by the judge not to reproduce the likeness of one witness for the prosecution.

Guzman is allegedly the master trickster, having escaped from jail in Mexico twice - by hiding in a laundry basket and by digging a tunnel out of his maximum security prison.

Mr Martinez said he started working for Guzman as a pilot before becoming a manager, or "gerente", and setting up offices in Mexico City to arrange the transport of drugs from Colombian cartels. These included the Medellin, Cali, North Valley and Bogota cartels, he said.

The manager's cover was that the office was a law firm, but secretly, the team was communicating with pilots over special radio frequencies.

"If everything was going well, you might say, 'gordo gordo gordo'," said Mr Martinez, who was also known as "El Gordo" (the fat one) or "El Tololoche" (a Mexican instrument like a double bass). At other times, the pilots would whistle.

Guzman allegedly made $A19 billion trafficking cocaine into the US until his first arrest in 1993. The infamous drug lord, who was extradited to the US last year, has pleaded not guilty to charges he spent more than 25 years running the Sinaloa cartel.

Mr Martinez said that from 1987 to 1991, El Chapo would receive shipments of cocaine on fleets of planes around every 20 days.

Guzman would reveal which night he wanted to bring the planes and his manager would tell the Colombian cartels to send as many jets as they could - each carrying up to 800 kilos of the drug.

The pair became so close, Mr Martinez said, Guzman asked to become godfather to his son - meaning they were now "compadres".

El Chapo, or ‘Shorty’, referred to planes as ‘girls’, cocaine as ‘shirts’ and fuel as ‘wine’, and called his covert operations ‘parties’, said an ex-manager at the Mexican cartel. Picture: Elizabeth Williams via AP
El Chapo, or ‘Shorty’, referred to planes as ‘girls’, cocaine as ‘shirts’ and fuel as ‘wine’, and called his covert operations ‘parties’, said an ex-manager at the Mexican cartel. Picture: Elizabeth Williams via AP


Mr Martinez said he once managed to bring in more than 10 planes on one night, making El Chapo "very happy". The drug lord allegedly told his manager: "Compadre, now it's a great party."

Guzman decided which airstrips to use and which nights to bring in the planes stuffed with white powder with the help of corrupt police, said Mr Martinez.

The former manager said Guzman gave at least $A14 million in bribes to police commander Guillermo Gonzalez Calderon on at least two occasions.

The prosecution claims El Chapo operated for more than a quarter of a century by paying off corrupt government officials who went as high up as the current and former Mexican president. They strenuously deny the charges.

Mr Martinez said the Sinaloa cartel operated from "plazas", which are places "where police allow you to work in exchange for money."

There were crashes - and arrests after a misinterpretation meant the pilots headed to the wrong airstri - but the system worked well for a while. Eventually, however, the police chief warned El Chapo he needed to switch to a new tactic, said Mr Martinez.

"Mr Calderon told Mr Guzman the American government had set up a base for interception," said the former cartel member. "He needed to change methods, instead of planes he should use ships. Every plane would be detected."

Guzman began sending ships out from both Mexico and Colombia, said Mr Martinez, which would meet in international waters to hand over the cocaine.

El Chapo owned ranches right beside the ocean and would send out inflatable motorboats to meet the larger vessels. Each would bring 800 to 1000kg of cocaine to the beach where his vans were waiting, said the former manager, to transport it to the 3000km US-Mexico border.

The system was not foolproof either, said Mr Martinez.

On one occasion, Colombian cartel boss Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia (or "Chupeta", meaning Lollipop) gave a shipment intended for Guzman to rival cartel boss Amado Carrillo Fuentes, or "El Senor de Los Cielos" (Lord of the Skies, for his large fleets of planes).

Chupeto claimed he had not been able to find Guzman's boats and needed to offload the product, said the manager. "(El Chapo) was very mad. He said, 'Look compadre, Chupeta is heading to your office, I want you to tie that asshole up.'"

Instead, Guzman took him into an office to talk, and Chupeta agreed to send another ship, said Mr Martinez.

But when a boat and crew vanished in a massive hurricane - along with a load worth $A235 million - they were never found.

Guzman's defence lawyers say he was not the cartel boss and the government's witnesses are liars, murderers and criminals who want to save themselves from jail. They say he is a "scapegoat" of the cartel, a corrupt government and US authorities who see him as the ultimate prize.

The prosecution argues that he is the worst drug trafficker since Pablo Escobar, a man who led a "global narco empire" and responsible for at least 33 homicides.

The trial continues.