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In 'El Chapo' Case, A Bribery Allegation Involving Former Mexican President


I'm not sure if you watch the show "Narcos" on Netflix. One of the narratives is drug lords paying government officials at the highest levels money in exchange for protection. Well, in a real-life courtroom in New York yesterday, just such a stunning allegation was made. A witness working for prosecutors said the notorious drug kingpin Joaquin El Chapo Guzman paid off Mexico's former president, Enrique Pena Nieto. And let's turn to one of the reporters who has been covering this trial. He's outside the courthouse this morning. It's The Wall Street Journal's Zolan Kanno-Youngs.

Good morning.

ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS: Good morning. Thanks for having me on.

GREENE: Well, thanks for taking the time for us. I know you're getting ready to head back into the courthouse. What exactly were these allegations that came out yesterday?

KANNO-YOUNGS: Yeah, no. It came out under cross-examination of Mr. Cifuentes, Alex Cifuentes, who's the top drug trafficker - the cooperating witness for the prosecution. He was under cross-examination by Jeffrey Lichtman, who's the attorney for El Chapo. And under cross-examination, Mr. Lichtman asked Mr. Cifuentes about these payments. And he asked, isn't it true - now I'm paraphrasing here. But he said, isn't it true that the president, Mr. Pena Nieto, requested $250 million from El Chapo as well as his associate Mr. Zambada, who you may know - El Mayo - who's a co-defendant in this trial.

And at first, there was - Mr. Cifuentes said, you know, I'm not sure about that amount, 250 million. But then he confirmed that a payment of $100 million was made to the former president that El Chapo paid - that he bribed the former president with $100 million. He said it was delivered via an intermediary, that there was a request for $250 million. And actually, El Chapo - even when a president - a president-elect at that time - is requesting that much money, he actually countered with the hundred million.

GREENE: He countered with an offer like it was some sort of negotiation for his protection. That's amazing.

KANNO-YOUNGS: Yes. That's - according to the testimony, yes.

GREENE: Right. And I guess we should say - I mean, as you said in your reporting, a former spokesman for the president has said this is outrageous and untrue. Right?

KANNO-YOUNGS: Yes, he did. And he also cited the fact that it was under his administration that El Chapo was captured and that it was a priority under his administration. I believe he called it false and defamatory.

GREENE: But the allegation alone, to what extent has it changed this trial, which already was almost, like, made for the big screens, it sounds like?

KANNO-YOUNGS: Yeah. I mean, earlier on in the trial, it was thought that there was some mumblings about this during a sidebar session with the judge. But now the type of thing - a lot of the feedback I've been getting is, well, didn't we already know all of this? I think, like, you know, the pop culture references you said. When it comes to the general public, there was this sort of understanding that this sort of thing might have happened.

But let's talk about who this is coming from now. You have one of the top drug associates - one of the top drug traffickers, who lived with Mr. Guzman for a period of time, who was closer than most to him - out here saying that this payment was made. I mean, we have a name, and it's on the record here. I think that's the most substantial thing to come out of it.

GREENE: All right. Zolan Kanno-Youngs covers law enforcement for The Wall Street Journal. He's outside the courthouse covering the trial of El Chapo in New York City.

Thanks a lot, Zolan.

KANNO-YOUNGS: Hey, thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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