By Brendan Pierson
(Reuters) – Accused Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman once paid a $100 million bribe to former Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, a former associate testified on Tuesday that he previously told U.S. authorities.
Alex Cifuentes, who has described himself as Guzman’s onetime right-hand man, discussed the alleged bribe under cross-examination by one of Guzman’s lawyers in Brooklyn federal court. Asked if he told authorities in 2016 that Guzman arranged the bribe, he answered, “That’s right.”
Cifuentes testified that he had told U.S. prosecutors Pena Nieto reached out to Guzman first, asking for $250 million. Cifuentes told the prosecutors that the bribe was paid in October 2012, when Pena Nieto was president-elect, he testified.
Cifuentes said he told prosecutors at a later meeting, last year, that he was no longer sure of the exact amounts of the bribes, but did not elaborate.
Cifuentes also said testified that Guzman once told him that he had received a message from Pena Nieto saying that he did not have to live in hiding anymore.
Pena Nieto has previously denied taking bribes from drug traffickers.
Reuters could not immediately reach Pena Nieto for comment. His former spokesman and other former officials did not immediately respond to messages requesting comment.
Pena Nieto was president of Mexico from December 2012 until November 2018. He previously served as governor of the State of Mexico.
Guzman, 61, has been on trial since November. He was extradited to the United States in 2017 to face charges of trafficking cocaine, heroin and other drugs into the country as leader of the Sinaloa Cartel.
Captured by Pena Nieto’s government in February 2014, Guzman broke out of prison for a second time some 17 months later, escaping through a mile-long tunnel dug right into in his cell.
The jailbreak humiliated the government and battered the president’s already damaged credibility, though Pena Nieto personally announced news of the kingpin’s third capture when he was again arrested in northwestern Mexico in January 2016.
Colombian-born Cifuentes is one of about a dozen witnesses who have so far testified against Guzman after striking deals with U.S. prosecutors, in a trial that has provided a window into the secretive world of the Sinaloa Cartel, one of the world’s most powerful drug trafficking organization.
Other witnesses at the trial have also made accusations of high-level corruption.
Jesus Zambada, another cartel member, testified in November he paid a multimillion dollar bribe to an aide of current Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in 2005. The aide was not named but later Gabriel Regino, an official in Mexico City when Lopez Obrador was mayor, wrote on Twitter that an accusation of bribery had emerged against him in the trial but was false.
Cifuentes earlier on Tuesday had also testified that Guzman asked an associate to pay a $10 million bribe to a general. The witness said the bribe was never paid and Guzman subsequently ordered the associate killed, though the hit was never carried out.
(Reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York and David Graham in Mexico City; Editing by Tom Brown and Lisa Shumaker)