When world-renowned drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was caught by law enforcement, everyone knew that a domino effect would ensue. After all, once a drug lord is finally caught there are friends, accomplices and business partners who also certainly had some involvement.
Due to the nature of the charges and sentences these men face, it’s common for them to do what they can to make themselves undetectable to the cops. One accomplice of El Chapo’s, a man named Juan Carlos Ramírez Abadía, who was nicknamed Chupeta, went to remarkably astonishing lengths to avoid capture. Just how much this man did to stay hidden is something to behold…
North Valley Cartel
Abadia was one of the main leaders of the North Valley Cartel. This cartel was involved in millions of dollars of drug trafficking but also murder and RICO charges in the US. According to police, Abadia was also involved in extensive money laundering as well as heroin trafficking. This man amassed a personal estate of $1.8 billion according to the US Department of State but was able to avoid law enforcement for years.
Abadia and his cohorts were masters of disguise as well as being drug trafficking experts. They went to great lengths not to be caught by the police and would stop at nothing to ensure that remained the case. But according to Adam J. Szubin, Director of the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, Abadia was “one of the most powerful and most elusive drug traffickers in Colombia.”
While El Chapo had been around for a while, Abadia entered the drug trafficking scene in 1986 under the so-called Cali Cartel. By the mid-1990s, Abadia had smuggled thousands of kilos of cocaine into San Antonio and Los Angeles. Abadia was the youngest of the members of the cartel and was not to be reckoned with as he had a propensity for violence.
By January 2007, Colombian officials stepped up efforts to combat the drug cartels who were seemingly running free. They carried out some targeted raids on their financial holdings and seized $54 million in cash and gold in just one week, hidden in buildings in the south-eastern portion of Cali. The residents of the homes where the money was found were taken into custody, but the $54 million was but a drop in the ocean of Abadia’s $1.8 billion fortune.
In August 2007, Abadia was arrested in an exclusive area of Brazil called Aldeia da Serra. He sat in jail for years until he was extradited to the US by the Supreme Federal Court of Brazil in 2008. He was finally extradited in August 2008. An auction of his possessions followed his arrest as hundreds of Brazilians stood in line to get a piece of his massive estate.
El Chapo Trial
During the trial of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, defense lawyers claimed they intended to discredit prosecution witnesses who they called “criminal liars” who would say anything to convict their client and come to a deal with the prosecution. First on the stand was Abadia, who was hammered for more than an hour by defense lawyers.
As well as admitting to the assassination of a man in Queens, Abadia was accused in the federal court in Brooklyn of being involved in the murders of 150 people. He even kept meticulous financial records which listed the costs of those killings. Guzmán’s lawyer William Purpura showed jurors an image of a business ledger and asked Abadia if an entry referred to “the murders of three people.” He said, “That’s correct.” He claimed not to remember the victim’s names but admitted the cost of the killings was $45,000.
In court, through an interpreter, Abadia admitted ordering the killing of a brother of a cartel member who he believed was a snitch. He even admitted openly that that hit specifically cost exactly $338,776. When he was asked to explain why that hit cost so much more than the others, he said, “It was a big group of hit men who took part in that killing.”
It soon became clear that Abadia would stop at nothing to protect his business and financial interests. He admitted in court that he invited the cartel member named Tocayo to a meeting where he and his associates were shot and killed. Abadia admitted that the bodies of the men were thrown into the back of a pickup truck and disposed of accordingly.
Attorneys were shocked by the matter-of-fact way in which Abadia spoke about murder and violence. After acknowledging that he killed a man by shooting him in the face at the distance of one meter, he told the court, “It’s impossible to be the leader of a cartel in Colombia without violence,” making out like he was just doing his job and that this was normal behavior.
The whole effort from Guzman’s defense team was to attempt to discredit Abadia to make his claims against Guzman of drug trafficking, conspiracy, money laundering and other crimes not credible. The attorney then turned his attention to Abadia’s face, which had been through extensive plastic surgery.
Despite thousands of dollars and hours under the plastic surgeon’s knife, Abadia was fooling no one. He was traced by US and Brazilian authorities to a hideout in an upscale neighborhood outside São Paulo and arrested. He was finally identified by prosecutors using voice-recognition technology.
Abadia admitted openly that he was a liar. He promised Colombian authorities that he would dismantle his cartel, stop selling cocaine and cooperate with them in exchange for a lighter prison sentence, but he never kept that promise. “Would you lie to avoid arrest, avoid extradition, avoid going to prison?” the attorney asked. “At that time, of course, I lied,” replied Abadia.
At the age of 55, Abadia is all set to receive the maximum sentence of 30 years for a guilty plea he made back in 2010. That sentence could be reduced to 25 years if it’s deemed that the suspect cooperated and was telling the truth. But Abadia is the third drug kingpin to implicate Guzman as the ringleader of Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel.
Abadia explained to jurors that he and Guzman, as well as many others, used different methods to smuggle cocaine from Colombia, via Mexico to the US. In the early 90s, drug shipments were mainly transported on planes. But after authorities caught on to this method of smuggling, the cartels agreed to shift the shipments to Pacific Ocean shrimp boats.
The cartel members called the shrimp boats a “virgin method,” as they had no idea whether it would prove to be lucrative or not. According to Abadia, Guzman requested he joined him and others in seeking approval for this shipment method from Juan José Esparragoza Moreno, a respected member of the crime group whose nickname was El Azul. But once the game was up, Abadia wanted to do whatever he could to not be caught by the cops.
When Abadia was asked in court about his altered appearance, he explained that his jawbone, cheekbones, eyes, mouth, ears, and nose were all altered during at least three rounds of plastic surgery. But Abadia’s success was mainly down to a meeting he had with Guzman at a hotel in Mexico where the men agreed to work together.
Abadia recalled in court that when Guzman told him he wanted the “purest product possible,” he was happy to oblige due to wanting “a reputation for myself for my cocaine being so good,” he said. Guzman also asked for a larger cut of the proceeds as his network was so large and successful. “I’m a lot faster. You’ll see,” he recalled Guzman bragging.
For the most part, the plastic surgery had worked. Abadia looked so different that when cops finally caught up with him, they needed to use voice recognition to confirm it was the suspect as no one was sure. Once they confirmed it was him, that extensive and painful plastic surgery accounted for nothing and was pointless.
While law enforcement across South America as well as in the States was looking for these cartel members for years, they were pleased that they were finally caught. Now, authorities in the US have to carefully play a delicate cat and mouse game to get the cartel members to testify against each other so that the maximum sentences can be handed down to men who ruined the lives of thousands of people and took the lives of others.