MEXICO CITY — A former associate of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán testified Tuesday that the accused drug cartel kingpin bragged of bribing former Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto with a $100 million payoff, according to news reports.
Alex Cifuentes, described as Guzmán’s former right-hand man, said in a Brooklyn courtroom that the money was delivered via an intermediary while Guzmán was on the lam and around the time Peña Nieto became president in December 2012, according to the reports.
Cifuentes first told U.S. prosecutors about the alleged illicit payment in 2016, when he began cooperating with the government, but the allegation became public during Tuesday’s testimony.
Neither Peña Nieto nor a spokesman could be reached for comment. A spokesman called the accusations “false and defamatory” when they were first raised earlier in the trial.
Peña Nieto left office in December after a troubled six-year term punctuated by accusations of corruption and incompetence — with Guzmán’s 2015 escape through a tunnel from his maximum-security prison cell marking a low point. The former president presided over Guzmán being recaptured twice, tweeting “mission accomplished” on the second occasion in January 2016, when Guzmán was nabbed at a seedy hotel.
The former president is not the first public official witnesses have accused of wrongdoing at Guzmán’s trial. Jesús Zambada García, Guzmán’s former accountant, said he paid off former public security secretary Genaro García Luna, plying him twice with suitcases containing at least $3 million. García Luna called the accusations “lies, defamation and perjury.”
A two-time escape artist with a base of social support in his native Sinaloa state, Guzmán, 61, rose from childhood impoverishment to lead the Sinaloa cartel, which transported tons of cocaine from Colombia to the United States, smuggling it through tunnels under the border, and reportedly bribed public officials across the country.
His ability to evade the authorities and seemingly mock their attempts to capture him came to embody impunity in Mexico and the difficulties in the country’s crackdown on drug cartels and organized crime, which has cost more than 200,000 lives and left more than 30,000 missing since 2006.
Guzmán was extradited on the eve of President Trump’s inauguration in January 2017 to face charges of trafficking cocaine, heroin and other drugs into the United States.
The accusations against Peña Nieto captured attention in Mexico, where the former president’s approval rating in polls cratered as he left office and his party is so unpopular that it has considered changing its name.
“This would merit an investigation in order to know if it’s true. The @lopezobrador_ government should take it seriously. The problem is . . . we know they won’t do anything,” journalist and columnist Mario Campos tweeted in Spanish.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador won election in a landslide, promising to clean up corruption. He stunned many in Mexico, however, by saying he preferred not to prosecute outgoing public officials accused of corruption.
López Obrador has a history of equating the actions of allegedly corrupt politicians to those of the “mafia.” He did so as he toured the country over the past 12 years, visiting all of Mexico’s more than 2,400 municipalities, including many overrun by organized crime.
On a 2016 tour of Sinaloa shortly after El Chapo’s arrest, he told a crowd: “Nothing is said about the cartel that robs the most: the Los Pinos Cartel” — a reference to the presidential palace López Obrador refuses to live in — “which is headed by Enrique Peña Nieto.”