National News

El Chapo’s Main Supplier: A Survivor and ‘Hands-On Boss’

Posted December 3, 2018 8:47 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — As one of the world’s biggest producers of Colombian cocaine, Juan Carlos Ramírez Abadía had two main virtues: He was endlessly adaptable and utterly obsessed with the details of his trade.

When U.S. officials began using radar planes to track flights of his product into Mexico, Ramírez simply switched to boats. When he cooked cocaine at laboratories deep in the jungles of Colombia, he frequently made quality-control checks, ensuring that his drugs were of the utmost purity — or “optimum,” he said.

But Ramírez, a former leader of the North Valley drug cartel, had another claim to fame, he told jurors Monday: He was the primary supplier to Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the Mexican kingpin known as El Chapo. In his second day as a government witness at Guzmán’s drug conspiracy trial in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, Ramírez detailed his 17-year bond with the defendant, describing it as the central partnership in one of modern history’s most profitable narco-operations.

Known as Chupeta — Spanish slang for Lollipop — Ramírez presented himself on the stand as a man consumed with the minutiae of his business, recalling how he never failed to debrief his pilots after every run and reviewed each line of the scrupulous accounting ledgers he maintained. Proud to the point of arrogance, he seldom used the word “cocaine” without reminding those in the courtroom that it was his cocaine.

Ramírez was also deeply fixated on his personal security. Early in his career, he said, after he was arrested in Colombia, he not only bribed officials to let him out of prison, but also paid them to erase every trace of his existence from government records.

Before he was arrested again, in 2007 in Brazil, he altered his entire face with several plastic surgeries. His new mien — narrowed eyes, sharpened chin and severely angled cheekbones — gave him the appearance of a vampire.

Last week, in his first day as a witness in the trial, Ramírez told the jury that he first met Guzmán in 1990 in the lobby of a Mexico City hotel. A newcomer to the drug scene, the defendant, Ramírez recalled, offered to smuggle 4,000 kilograms of cocaine (“My cocaine,” he said) to Los Angeles from Mexico for 40 percent of the shipment.

That was slightly more than the 37 percent that most Mexican traffickers charged, Ramírez said. But Guzmán won him over with a brash, convincing pitch.

“He said, ‘I’m a lot faster,'” Ramírez recalled. “'Try me and you’ll see.'”

Thus began a fruitful and enduring alliance that lasted nearly 20 years and led to almost 400 tons of Colombian cocaine being moved to Mexico and shipped across the border into the United States, Ramírez testified. Initially, the partners used planes to transport their loads to Guzmán’s secret airstrips in Mexico. Later, they switched to fishing boats, exchanging their cargo in covert meetings on the seas.

The terms of the deal were simple. After the cocaine had passed across the border, Guzmán took his 40 percent and sold it in the United States, Ramírez said. Ramírez’s operatives reclaimed the rest to sell themselves.

The profits were apparently astonishing. From 1990 to 1996, Ramírez said, Guzmán made as much $640 million selling his cocaine.

Ramírez exercised inordinate control over Guzmán’s business. When the partners switched from air to ocean routes, Ramírez installed Colombian captains on the Mexican boats and even had one of his employees run the onshore radio that kept in constant contact with the vessels.

“Would it be fair to say you are a hands-on boss?” a prosecutor asked Ramírez.

“Always,” he replied.

But even such focus was not enough to avoid the occasional disaster.

In the early 1990s, for example, Ramírez said he sent a fishing boat, filled with 20 tons of cocaine, to the Pacific Ocean to meet a Mexican boat that was owned and operated by Amado Carrillo Fuentes, one of Guzmán’s allies in the Sinaloa drug cartel. But Carrillo Fuentes’ captain, a cocaine addict, started having drug-induced visions that U.S. Coast Guard ships were near. Afraid of being caught, Ramírez said, the Mexican captain sank his ship — and lost $400 million in cocaine.

In 1996, after several more close calls, Ramírez said he surrendered to the Colombian authorities, promising to dismantle his empire and serve as much as 24 years in prison. But in the end, as he often did, he survived.

He said that he paid several million dollars to corrupt officials in his homeland. He was released from custody after being in jail only slightly more than four years.

After being freed, Ramírez adapted again and struck a new deal with Guzmán and his allies. Under this arrangement, Ramírez said he shut down his U.S. distribution business. He allowed Guzmán and his crew not only to smuggle his cocaine across the border, but also to sell it on their own in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, he said.

While this was a major step forward for Guzmán, it was something else for Ramírez. By that point, he explained, the U.S. government was on his tail and would soon indict him and seek his extradition. He pleaded guilty in 2010.

He was trying, as always, to survive.

“I wanted to be behind a curtain,” he said.