The lights in the New York East Circuit Courthouse were turned off at the request of prosecutors. Harold Poveda, aka El Conejo, was surrounded by dozens of people: the judge, the jury, the attorneys and the journalists. But at that moment he was left alone. “Can you please explain what we are seeing?” they asked as the images were projected. “Yes, of course,” said the capo in a heavy Colombian accent. “It’s my home”. The drug dealer began describing “the fantasy mansion,” a small palace south of Mexico City that took four or five years to build. It cost him almost seven million dollars. The camera focused on a hand-carved door he brought back from India, a replica of medieval armor, suspension bridges criss-crossing expansive gardens, and a swimming pool connected to his personal nightclub. What nobody expected was such a detailed report from The Rabbit about his animals. In that residence alone, he had lions, other big cats, a chimpanzee, exotic birds, and a “spectacular” Persian cat “like cocaine.” Suddenly Poveda started to cry. In a cracked voice, he recalled the kingdom he built 15 years earlier in the midst of an all-out cartel war and the betrayal that ultimately led to his losing everything. Just before, he’d been proud that they hadn’t caught him that night. He managed to climb the white tiger’s cage and escaped.
Almost everything that was known about “The Fantasy Mansion” came from journalistic work. In fact, it was the media that recorded the video presented in court and came up with this name. This time, however, it was The Rabbit who relived it all as if it were an autobiographical story. Poveda, a former member of the Sinaloa cartel, was subpoenaed this week to testify in the trial of Genaro García Luna, who was head of Mexican security during the government of Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), a period when the former president started the so-called drug war, which still has consequences today. García Luna, a former police model, is facing drug trafficking and organized crime charges in the United States following his arrest in Dallas in December 2019. The testimonies of El Conejo and other bosses who have become employees of the authorities sometimes have extravagant passages. frankly, unbelievable. But they weren’t open or colorful. They are also a mea culpa: I have killed, I have kidnapped and I have tortured. It’s no longer about TV series or fictional stories. Two decades after terror was sown, it is now the drug dealers who are telling the story.
The most relevant trial for Mexico since the overthrow of Joaquín El Chapo Guzmán “convicted in the same court and by the same judge who handled this case” has become the backdrop for the largest exercise in collective memory about the war on drug trafficking that left behind hundreds of people dead in the country. El Conejo spoke about having his wife’s lover, a Colombian police officer, killed. He detailed how his bosses thought of doing the same to García Luna, who was in charge of the country’s security at the time, and “sending his head to the government so everyone can see that they’re not playing with them.” He confessed that he made between $300 million and $400 million during his criminal career. And he said he pleaded guilty to trafficking more than a million kilos of cocaine in the United States. His record predicted he would spend the rest of his life behind bars, but he has been on parole since 2019. Some of the witnesses the prosecution relied on have already served their sentences, while others are still in prisons across the United States, in one of the most anticipated cases of all those who have yet to intervene.
“You said you were responsible for the deaths of at least 100 people, right?” Florian Miedel, one of the defenders, asked Óscar Nava Valencia. El Lobo, as the boss is also known, was silent for a few moments. “I’ve had to make bad choices in my life, yes,” snapped the witness. “You call that making bad decisions?” Miedel shot back. Confronted with his legacy of violence, Nava Valencia maintained that if he were around, the truth should be told, no matter how crude it was and no matter how uncomfortable the situation made him. “It’s not easy to sit here and say things as they are,” admitted the drug dealer.
“Did you torture?” Assistant District Attorney Erin Reid asked Israel Ávila, another former Sinaloa cartel member. “Several times,” he replied. “More than 10 times?” Reid asked. “Probably,” Avila said after another long pause. I tried to remember. The drug dealer, a middle manager at the organization, said he was both a victim and a perpetrator. “They tortured me because they believed I was collaborating with the United States government,” he said. The loyalty test left her with cuts on her face, burns all over her body, and broken bones from the beatings and shackles. But he had to stay. “I had to keep working for them because if I didn’t, they would kill me.” Before the prosecutor could ask another question, she managed to say, “Not just me, but my family.”
El Conejo also assured that he was tortured, but not by his rivals, but by the police in charge of García Luna. “They blindfolded me,” he said. He was beaten before he was presented to authorities and pressured by agents who ransacked two of his belongings and forced him to make a false confession, he said. “They put a plastic bag on me to suffocate me,” he continued. “They undressed me.” “They gave me electric shocks.” “Until I couldn’t take it anymore,” he calmed down. A day after the kidnapping, it was presented to the media as a war trophy.
In the testimonies at the trial, the boundary between the authorities and organized crime was at times very narrow. It’s all about this. García Luna is accused of having links to drug trafficking for more than 20 years. Sergio Villarreal Barragán, the first witness called by prosecutors, recounted how he disguised himself as a police officer and practically coordinated the 2008 arrest of Jesús El Rey Zambada, his former partner in the Sinaloa cartel. The drug dealers were thus smuggled in by the security forces, who had uniforms, patrols and ID cards identical to those of the law enforcement officers, always according to their testimony. He said they received confidential information that the drugs seized were evenly distributed, that they removed and deployed commanders in exchange for multimillion-dollar bribes. Once, he assured, so much money was delivered that it did not fit in the car they put him in. Talking about the case is also known who He was arrested in 2010 and extradited in 2012, during Calderón’s six-year sentence and after serving time he was released from prison more than a year ago.
It wasn’t just Villarreal Barragán. El Lobo Valencia said he paid $3 million to meet with the then security minister for 15 minutes at a Guadalajara car wash, the cover of one of his partners. Ávila said it was the agents themselves who helped them unload shipments of drugs that landed at Mexico City International Airport and other terminals in the country. He even said they helped them hide and that they laughed out loud when they heard on the radio that other police officers were saying they were after them. Poveda assumed he could return to Colombia without going through immigration and that the police would escort him to the door of the plane so there would be no problems. “It was a beauty,” El Conejo said.
It wasn’t just the bosses who spoke their truth. Raúl Arellano, a former Mexican police officer, said he received “strange orders” to unleash drug trafficking at the Mexican capital’s airport. There was an entire police code in place to seal the pact of impunity in the transfer of cocaine, guns and money. “They talked about how they passed ‘the suitcase’ of the 79 [clave para droga] and the 40th [dinero]″ Arellano decided. Francisco Cañedo, another former agent, testified that he saw his boss meet with Arturo Beltrán Leyva and Édgar Valdez Villarreal La Barbie, two of the most feared drug dealers of their time. “I was shaking,” he said of the meeting, which was said to be chaired by his company’s boss. After being denounced, Cañedo was eventually charged with six serious crimes but later exonerated. Disappointed and exhausted, Arellano resigned.
García Luna has said, in the voice of his lawyers, that the testimonies border on the fantastic. “There is no evidence of the money, no photos, no emails, no text messages,” said César de Castro, the defense leader. “Everything is based on the testimonies of killers, kidnappers and human traffickers,” he added. For some media and sections of the population, the testimonies are hard to believe. They have a hard time imagining a cabinet member meeting with various crime bosses on a weekday and receiving suitcases containing over a million dollars in dirty money at their behest. Others believe that the defendant is effectively convicted, although there is almost a month and a half left before the end of the trial. The fate of the accused is decided more than 3,000 kilometers from the border.
Many years later and as if remembering past lives, drug traffickers enter and exit the confessional at every hearing. Sometimes they are defiant and sometimes they seem cornered or remorseful. You speak of unimaginable sums of money; submarines and boats full of “goods”; luxury cars and fine jewelry; ridiculous nicknames and corruption at all levels of government. Prosecutors are challenged to connect the dots and support the accounts without “reasonable doubt”. The trial is scheduled to continue next Monday.
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