Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, the notorious Mexican cartel leader, paid a $100 million bribe to former Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, a close associate of the infamous drug lord testified in US federal court Tuesday.
The testimony was made by Alex Cifuentes, a convicted drug trafficker who worked for Guzmán as part of the Sinaloa cartel, and became so close that he described himself as the drug lord's "right-hand man, his left-hand man."
From 2007 to 2013, Cifuentes reportedly worked for Guzmán, including spending years in Sinaloa's Sierra Madre mountains, moving from one location to another as they evaded capture.
In the early days of the trial, Guzmán's attorney, Jeffrey Lichtman, had hinted to allegations of corruption and bribery at the highest levels of Mexico's government, but Tuesday was the first time details of an alleged bribe being made to Peña Nieto were made in the Brooklyn courtroom.
"Mr. Guzmán paid a bribe of $100 million to President Peña Nieto?" Lichtman asked Cifuentes, according to the New York Times.
"Yes," Cifuentes responded.
Corruption between powerful drug cartels and Mexico's government has long been an issue, but Cifuentes's allegation, if true, would link it to the highest reaches of power.
Cifuentes also listed off alleged bribes to other members of the government, including generals and law enforcement, to either give the Sinaloa cartel immunity or persuade officials to go after its rivals.
According to Cifuentes, Peña Nieto and Guzmán touched base sometime around 2012 after the election.
Cifuentes testified that Peña Nieto asked for $250 million, but that Guzmán eventually paid around $100 million so that he could come out of hiding.
Lichtman also asked Cifuentes, who was arrested in 2013 and became a cooperating witness for the US, about an alleged bribe to former Mexican President Felipe Calderón in 2008 by a rival cartel, the Beltrán Leyva brothers. However, Cifuentes, who had told US authorities in a previous interview about the alleged kickback, said in court Tuesday he didn't remember.
Calderón responded to the exchange in court via Twitter, pointing out Cifuentes's alleged lapse in memory.
“To the question from the attorney of Joaquin Guzmán to the witness Cifuentes, if the Beltrán Leyva had given me money, the witness twice denied it,” he wrote. “To make it clear.”
Cifuentes was part of a Colombian family drug cartel that eventually developed deep ties to the Sinaloa cartel.
In his opening statement, Lichtman tried to paint Guzmán as a scapegoat, alleging that bribes to high-ranking Mexican officials had kept the real leaders of the cartel free from custody.
In the initial days of the trial in November, Lichtman said Mexican presidents, including Peña Nieto, who was still in office at the time, had received bribes from the cartels. His spokesperson denied the charge.
Guzmán spent years on the run after escaping prison in 2001. He was arrested again in 2014. But Peña Nieto and his administration were excoriated when, the following year, Guzmán escaped for a second time. Peña Nieto vowed to find the reputed drug lord and, in 2016, he was captured by Mexican marines and federal police.
However, Peña Nieto's administration continued to face criticism over its handling of Guzmán's arrest and escape and, in January 2017, he was suddenly extradited to face charges in the US.