The assassin’s bullet whizzed past Jesus Zambada García’s ear and knocked him to the ground. He wasn’t dead, just wounded. The gunshot sliced a deep, red groove into his head.
Ambushed by his attackers at a Mexico City store, Mr. Zambada stumbled to his feet and came up shooting. With a panicked spray of gunfire, he hit one of them. The other ran away.
“I’m alive,” he told a jury on Thursday, “because the bullet did not penetrate my skull.”
This tale of an attempted hit came on Mr. Zambada’s second day as a witness against his former boss in the Sinaloa drug cartel, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the Mexican crime lord known as El Chapo.
After testifying Tuesday about the cartel’s financing and smuggling methods, Mr. Zambada spoke on Thursday about the two most notorious aspects of the trafficking organization: its taste for violence and talent for corruption.
For nearly five hours, he told the jury frontline stories from Mexico’s brutal drug wars — among them, his own close brush with death in 1994, when he was hunted down by gunmen from the Arellano-Felíx gang, one of his cartel’s most bitter rivals.
His account was delivered in a gritty style that might be described as narco-Gothic. He gave the jury an insider’s view of well-known crimes in Mexico, including the murder of a Roman Catholic cardinal, a blood bath in a Puerto Vallarta nightclub and the assassination of a competing trafficker, who was shot in the neck.
“They always end up with deaths,” Mr. Zambada said about the battles he had been through. “There are a lot of deaths.”
It was the first time during Mr. Guzmán’s drug-conspiracy trial, which is being held under extremely tight security at the Federal District Court in Brooklyn, that the testimony turned grisly. But the violent nature of the tales was undercut by the teller’s blasé manner. Even as he spoke about his favorite type of pistol (a .38 caliber) and the killing of one of his brothers, Mr. Zambada seemed relaxed, stroking his chin and casually spinning in his chair.
His narrative began in the early 1990s when Mr. Guzmán and his Sinaloan partners — including Mr. Zambada and his brother, Ismael Zambada García — went to war with another pair of brothers, Benjamín and Ramón Arellano Felíx, who ran a cartel in Tijuana. The hostilities broke out after Ismael Zambada parted ways with the Arellano Felíx brothers and instead joined one of Mr. Guzmán’s allies.
After the split, Mr. Zambada told the jury, the Arellano Felíx brothers closed the Tijuana border to the Sinaloan traffickers, an order that the stubborn Mr. Guzmán ignored. The Arellano Felíxes were outraged. And in 1992, Mr. Zambada said, Mr. Guzmán tried to take revenge.
Prosecutors say that in the early morning of Nov. 8, 1992, a band of Mr. Guzmán’s armed assassins burst into Christine, a discothèque in Puerto Vallarta, drawing weapons from their coats and shooting out the lights.
Mr. Zambada said that Mr. Guzmán had planned that night to murder Ramón Arellano-Felíx. While the intended target survived the attack, some of his gunmen and several bystanders did not.
The following year, Mr. Arellano Felíx sought vengeance. In one of the most storied murders in Mexican history, Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo was killed in 1993 at an airport in Guadalajara. And in court on Thursday, Mr. Zambada claimed Mr. Arellano Felíx was to blame. He testified that the trafficker had personally killed the cardinal accidentally while trying to murder Mr. Guzmán.
It took another decade for the bloody circle to finally be closed. In Feb. 2002, Mr. Arellano Felíx was stopped by the authorities in the Pacific Coast resort of Mazatlán. A firefight ensued, and the Tijuana drug lord fled toward a hotel. But before he got there, someone put a bullet in his neck.
Mexican officials later blamed the death on the police, but Mr. Zambada, in another courtroom shock, testified on Thursday that the officers who killed Mr. Arellano-Felíx were working with the Sinaloa cartel.
Mr. Guzmán was thrilled by the death of his antagonist, he said.
“If anything had really given him pleasure,” Mr. Zambada told the jury, “it was to have killed Ramón Arellano.”
Before he offered up this litany of gore, Mr. Zambada confessed to yet another crime. Every month, he said, for more than a decade, he had personally paid $300,000 in bribes to Mexican officials.
Acting as a cartel bagman, Mr. Zambada said he bribed military officers, the municipal and federal police, authorities at airports and seaports, officials in the attorney general’s office, even representatives from Interpol.
These illicit handouts were particularly useful, he said, when Mr. Guzmán escaped from prison — for the first time — in 2001, hidden in a laundry cart. Working with his brother, Mr. Zambada said he helped the kingpin flee from his pursuers by arranging for a helicopter to ferry him to safety.
Once Mr. Guzmán was finally in the clear, Mr. Zambada said, he and his brother drove the boss to the heart of Mexico City, the territory that Mr. Zambada ran for the cartel. He had arranged in advance for the police to escort them. But Mr. Guzmán suddenly got nervous when a squad car and a motorcycle unexpectedly pulled up.
Mr. Zambada put his friend at ease.
“I said, ‘Don’t worry,’” he recounted to the jury. “‘These are our people. They’re here to protect us.’”