Front Burner

El Chapo's Canadian connections

One of the world’s most notorious drug lords, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, is on trial in New York and a star witness just revealed a lot about El Chapo's Canadian operation. The National Post's Brian Fitzpatrick explains what court documents have shown.
Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman is the alleged head of the Mexican Sinaloa cartel, one of the most powerful drug trafficking organizations in the world. (Edgard Garrido/Reuters)

Notorious drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman ran a secret operation in Canada, according to a star witness in his U.S. trial.

Guzman's former aide Alex Cifuentes-Villa recently took the stand against the Mexican kingpin to reveal the inner workings of the Sinaloa cartel, which is considered to be one of the most powerful drug organizations in the world.

His court revelations included extensive details about how Guzman and his associates managed to smuggle millions of dollars worth of drugs into Canada.

National Post reporter Brian Fitzpatrick told Front Burner host Jayme Poisson the story of how Cifuentes-Villa, the mafia and a Canadian real estate agent allegedly helped facilitate a multi-billion dollar drug empire.

Here is part of their conversation.

So Alex [Cifuentes-Villa] took the stand this week and he was asked about Canada. How much is El Chapo actually involved in Canada?

Alex Cifuentes-Villa, he comes from a pretty notorious Colombian crime family that El Chapo had allegedly worked for and with for years. He said he first met El Chapo in late 2007 and ended up living with him in the mountains. In terms of what volume of drugs they were involved in, Alex said on the stand that they were making dozens of millions [of dollars] from their Canadian operation.

El Chapo's former aide Alex Cifuentes-Villa testified against the kingpin, revealing extensive details about his drug smuggling operations. (Jane Rosenberg/Reuters)

On the stand, Alex named his biggest partner in Canada and it was pretty surprising. Tell me who Stephen Tello is. What was Stephen Tello's job in Canada?

According to Canadian court documents I've seen, he worked in real estate in Toronto. 

What was Stephen Tello's job in Canada?

[Alex] described Tello as his Canadian worker delivering cocaine and other drugs to Canadian wholesalers. Then he'd collect the proceeds and make sure that this cash was sent back either to Mexico or even further south to Colombia and Ecuador to buy more drugs so that more drugs could be sent north. Tello's job, as far as the testimony from Alex made it out to be, was essentially a point man in Canada to whom large consignments of cocaine will be sent.

He talked about in court how they were making dozens of millions — to use his words — from Canada.- Brian Fitzpatrick, National Post reporter

How did that relationship between Alex and Stephen Tello the real estate agent unfold?

It seems to have unfolded pretty well to begin with. He talked about in court how they were making dozens of millions — to use his words — from Canada. At a certain point, he said that El Chapo seemed to get a bit paranoid and was told by other workers that he had in Canada that Tello might have been stealing some of his cash. So from that point on, it started to kind of go a bit pear-shaped.

So Stephen Tello is alive. So what happened?

[Alex] said he tried initially to convince Stephen Tello to come down to Mexico so he could kill him in Mexico. And it's unclear whether Tello kind of smelled a rat at that stage. But the way Alex described it in court, he just wouldn't come down.

Then the plan B was that okay, he was going to involve his own wife and that she would go to Canada to get someone to kill Stephen Tello there. And [El Chapo] didn't offer exact details on when this was going to happen or how it was going to happen, except for the fact that he was in the process of setting up meetings with the Hells Angels. Luckily for Stephen Tello, Alex himself was actually arrested kind of not too long after that anyway.

[Alex] said he tried initially to convince Stephen Tello to come down to Mexico so he could kill him in Mexico.- Brian Fitzpatrick

Alex was arrested before these plans could move forward. But Stephen Tello is also sitting in a Canadian jail.

Yeah. So Alex was arrested and then El Chapo was arrested a few months after. So from that standpoint, Tello was quite lucky. The third thing he had going in his favour was that in April 2015, he was arrested in this giant Nova Scotia RCMP sting called Operation Harrington.

It wasn't discussed as a Sinaloa cartel-based conspiracy by any means, but it did involve eight separate conspiracies to import drugs into Canada from the U.S., Guyana, Brazil, Colombia and elsewhere. He actually ended up getting a 15-year sentence ... that probably in a roundabout way could even have saved his life, whether he kind of knew it or not.

Written by Eunice Kim. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Hear the full conversation at the top of this post.

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