Did the world’s most famous drug lord really pay Mexico’s ex-president a $100-million bribe not to arrest him?
The claim, made by a witness Tuesday at the trial of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, stretches credibility, experts say — starting with the fact that it would take a truck to transport that much cash.
Colombian drug trafficker-turned-state witness Alex Cifuentes surprised the courtroom in New York — and caused a firestorm of controversy in Mexico — when he alleged that “El Chapo” had paid the bribe to then-president-elect Enrique Pena Nieto in 2012.
But while there is no doubt that Mexico is awash in all the ingredients of the story — drug money, corrupt officials, powerful kingpins — there are many reasons to doubt it, according to people who know the murky nexus of politics and narcotics.
“It would have been the biggest bribe in all of history. I’ve been with DEA (the US Drug Enforcement Administration) for 31 years, I’ve seen bribes of millions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of dollars, but certainly not a bribe like that,” said Mike Vigil, former head of international operations for the DEA.
“Once when I was working undercover in Panama, I borrowed $1 million from the CIA to flash to these drug traffickers from Bolivia and Colombia. They were all in $100 bills, and I needed a huge suitcase to put that stuff in. So you would have needed a truck for $100 million. What did they do, drive up… and give it to the president?”
After Cifuentes made the accusation, Pena Nieto’s supporters rushed to argue that the former president (2012-2018) was the one who made sure “El Chapo” was re-arrested after his brazen prison escape in 2015, then extradited to the United States.
Partisan politics aside, there is something to that argument, Vigil said.
“If I had taken a bribe from Chapo Guzman, the last thing I would have done is extradite him to the United States,” he told AFP.
“Would you have extradited Chapo Guzman if you had taken money from him? He would come here (to the US) and start immediately making allegations against you.”
There are several reasons to question Cifuentes’s story.
For one thing, he is testifying as part of a plea deal, in exchange for a softer sentence.
He also provided no proof, and admitted he was unsure about key details, including the amount and the date.
Then there is the fact that the information comes second-hand: Cifuentes said “El Chapo” is the one who told him the story, in which he purportedly gave the money to a woman named “Comadre Maria” to give to the president-elect shortly before he took office.
But “El Chapo” would hardly be the first drug trafficker to brag about huge bribes supposedly paid to high-ranking officials, said Vigil.
Both Guzman’s stories and Cifuentes’s have shown a certain flare for drama as they have emerged in court. On Wednesday, Cifuentes testified that “El Chapo” was once tortured by army soldiers who dangled him upside-down from a helicopter to find out where his drugs were.
The source of the story? Guzman’s own version, as told to a film producer whom he wanted to make a movie about his life.
Finally, there is the fact that the bribe story emerged during questioning by Guzman’s own lawyers — who have sought to portray their client as a scapegoat for corrupt officials and the man they say wields the real power in the Sinaloa cartel, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.
If there is any truth to the story, there should be evidence somewhere, said Raul Benitez, a professor at Mexico’s largest university, UNAM.
“Normally, when drug traffickers give money to politicians or businessmen, they record the handover, because that’s how they blackmail the person if they need to,” he said.
“You can’t hide $100 million. There would have to be a bank transfer or real-estate or jewels, and the drug traffickers would need proof for it to work.”
‘Everything is possible’
Then again, anything is possible when it comes to corruption in Mexico, said journalist Jose Reveles, who has written books on the country’s multi-billion-dollar drug-trafficking business.
“No drug cartel operates without official protection,” he said.
“It’s possible some government officials could have lied and said they were representing the president, or that the kingpins really do have access to the president. Everything is possible. We know this country is rife with corruption from top to bottom.”
He urged Mexico’s new government, led by anti-establishment leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, to investigate the bribe accusation. But he is not optimistic the truth will come out, he said.
“This idea of things being revealed as true, false or half-true exists in other countries. Not in Mexico,” he said.
“Here, total concealment is the rule.”