‘Russian Mike’: Canadian jailed in Curacao suspected of smuggling cocaine into Canada for ‘El Chapo’ Guzman
|National Post 05 Nov 2018 at 07:51|
A Canadian accused of working with Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is sitting in a Caribbean jail cell furiously fighting extradition to the U.S.
Mykhaylo Koretskyy — also known as “Russian Mike” and “Cobra” — is alleged to have shipped millions of dollars in cocaine to Canada through his links with El Chapo, the world’s biggest drug kingpin since Colombia’s Pablo Escobar.
Koretskyy, 43, was hauled into custody when he stepped off a plane in the Dutch territory of Curacao on Jan. 3, 2018, after authorities on the island were alerted by a “red notice” from Interpol.
Since then, he has been battling to halt his extradition to the U.S., where he has been charged in a 2014 cocaine smuggling indictment by the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.
A brief subject line in an order to unseal that indictment lists El Chapo as the Canadian’s alleged co-conspirator. Jury selection in Guzman’s long-awaited Brooklyn trial starts today.
Though Korestkyy’s indictment was issued on Jan. 23, 2014, it was only unsealed on Jan. 5, 2018, two days after his Curacao arrest. Initial media reports indicated the Ukrainian-born Canadian citizen had been living in Toronto. But why he was only detained this year remains a mystery.
The indictment contains no other mention of El Chapo, but Koretskyy stands accused of working, between October 2008 and January 2014, with “others known and unknown” to commit an offence “outside the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.”
Sources briefed on the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, tell the National Post that Koretskyy has long been believed by the U.S. to be a major drug trafficker working with El Chapo and others.
He is suspected of moving cocaine from the U.S. into Canada by concealing it in cargo trucks and the evidence against him is reported to include secret telephone tapings and information provided by traffickers who are co-operating with U.S. authorities.
In this photo provided U.S. law enforcement, authorities escort Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, centre, from a plane to a waiting caravan of SUVs at Long Island MacArthur Airport on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017, in Ronkonkoma, N.Y. U.S. law enforcement via AP
His indictment says the substance involved was “five kilograms and more” of cocaine, but sources say the drugs Koretskyy is suspected of transporting were in the hundreds of kilograms. With one kilogram of cocaine worth around $30,000 at wholesale and far more at street level in the U.S., such loads would be worth multiple millions of dollars.
As well as Guzman, among those listed in the unsealing order with Koretskyy is Hildebrando Alexander Cifuentes Villa, known as “Alex,” who hails from a notorious Colombian crime family with long ties to Escobar’s Medellin crime syndicate and its successor groups. He was detained in Mexico in 2014.
The indictment says Koretskyy and others distributed drugs “knowing that such substance would be unlawfully imported into the United States, or into waters within a distance of 12 miles of the coast of the United States,” and that the U.S. is also seeking a forfeiture of his illegally gained assets.
To Canadian authorities, though, Russian Mike appears to be a ghost.
Police in Toronto say Koretskyy has not come to their attention, while police in Vancouver say they “don’t have any information to share.” RCMP will only say they are aware of media reports about his detention. Global Affairs Canada say they have no record of any Canadian citizen being detained in Curacao.
In court documents, Koretskyy is listed as having the same lawyer as El Chapo, Jeffrey Lichtman. Lichtman spoke to the National Post in recent days about Guzman but did not respond to numerous followup calls and emails about Koretskyy.
The Manhattan lawyer gained fame for working for Mafia scion John “Junior” Gotti, who faced murder conspiracy and fraud charges but avoided prison after a mid-2000s trial. He says the Guzman case is more complicated than the Gotti affair, but “similar in the way that the jury and the public are predisposed to thinking my client is guilty.”
El Chapo was extradited to the U.S. in January 2017 following his third capture and second prison break since 1993. The allegations in his 17-count indictment involve drug trafficking, $14 billion in criminal proceeds and multiple killings, spanning from the late 1980s to 2014.
According to defence filings, discovery in El Chapo’s case includes 330,000 pages of documents and “tens of thousands of recorded communications.” Seventeen new murder conspiracies have been added against him, the documents state, almost doubling the government’s initial number. For a trial that might take four months, Lichtman and his defence partner Eduardo Balarezo insist they haven’t been given enough time.
Emma Coronel Aispuro, wife of JoaquÃn “El Chapo” Guzman, outside federal court in New York on April 17, 2018 with lawyer Eduardo Balarezo. HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images
“He has a very strong legal defence team, and is clearly working all angles to challenge the case they’re making against him,” says David Shirk, a University of San Diego professor who specializes in Mexican organized crime. “But the evidence seems fairly damning. The number of options the prosecution has to pursue in evidence and testimony is really overwhelming.”
Jury selection is set to prove nightmarish as authorities seek to find civilians who, somehow, haven’t seen the Netflix series on the drug lord or read the infamous Rolling Stone article by Sean Penn.
“The best case scenario is that they (the defence) identify some technicality that leads to a mistrial or to people questioning the process,” Shirk says.
Lichtman and Balarezo may end up cross-examining any number of prosecution witnesses; estimates on how many may be summoned range from more than a dozen to 40. Among the possible prosecution witnesses, Chicago twins Pedro and Margarito Flores are perhaps the most intriguing.
The brothers ran a heroin and cocaine distribution operation in the Windy City from 1998, working with Mexico’s Sinaloa and Beltrán-Leyva cartels from May 2005. In November 2008, they handed themselves in to U.S. marshals and turned on their former partners in exchange for reduced sentences.
Both are now in witness protection and would have good reason to not want to face El Chapo. Their father was murdered in Mexico in 2009, reportedly as a direct result of the brothers’ snitching.
Most of the evidence is built on the backs of cooperators who will run over their own mothers to get out of jail
The high-rolling twins, their documented confessions show, would transfer cocaine and heroin from Mexico north using “trap” compartments in the roofs of tractor-trailer trucks and in the walls of rail cars. From Chicago, their crew sent drugs to numerous cities in the U.S., including to “a large wholesale customer in Vancouver.”
They bought their drugs on credit, taking up to 2,000 kilos of cocaine from the Mexicans per month, before they began recording numerous conversations with people they say are Guzman and other Sinaloa operatives.
Whatever their personal trustworthiness, the transcripts of the alleged conversations with El Chapo and others offer a peek into a network of huge complexity. They say they sold El Chapo’s products wholesale to 30 major customers in North America, using an army of connections to move both drugs and their monetary proceeds.
“The folk that are engaged in very specialized industries, they operate in shadow zones with many different groups,” Shirk says. “It’s all about reaching customers through various vendors. It’s like big companies. Pepsi or Coca-Cola will use any vendor they can to get their product to market.”
Besides the Flores twins, others who may take the stand include the son of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, Guzman’s former Sinaloa cartel partner. Lichtman, though, says any criminal who might dare face El Chapo in court can’t be taken at their word.
“Most of the evidence is built on the backs of co-operators who will run over their own mothers to get out of jail,” he says.
After El Chapo’s wars with the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas for Nuevo Laredo in 2005, and with his friends-turned-enemies in the Beltrán-Leyva cartel and various others for Juarez from 2008, a relative period of peace broke out after Sinaloa achieved dominance from 2012. But Since El Chapo has been off the scene, Shirk says, things have gotten worse, not better.
“The significance of El Chapo’s arrest, extradition, trial and likely sentencing, it has, over the last two or three years, really put Mexico back into a turmoil we haven’t seen since 2010, 2011,” he says.
Mexican Federal Police arrive at the scene after a group of gunmen launched grenades on the main avenue of Ciudad JuÃ¡rez in northern Mexico on July 15, 2010. AFP/Getty Images
Nowadays, Guzman’s sons battle it out with former allies for control of the Sinaloa cartel, which despite El Chapo’s extradition remains extremely powerful. But Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes or “El Mencho,” the head of the Jalisco New Generation cartel with a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head, has replaced El Chapo as the country’s biggest villain.
Getting Guzman over the border was heralded as a huge success, but the dismally failed war on drugs and gangs launched by President Felipe Calderón in 2006, and continued by his successor Enrique Peña Nieto, has seen well over 200,000 lives lost. As Andrés Manuel López Obrador begins his presidency, one dominant crime lord has simply been replaced by another.
Says Shirk, “2018 could be the most violent on record, because (Jalisco) still sees resistance. It takes a long time to beat down all your rivals.”
For more than a decade, Guzman and his military-style hit men, backed by corrupt officialdom at state, municipal and federal levels, turned Mexico into a bloodbath. Cities like Nuevo Laredo and Juarez became synonymous with dismembered bodies and narcomantas, the macabre, rambling painted messages left by one cartel for the others to see.
I’ve made no secret with my disgust at how my client’s been treated
Does a man accused of overseeing such horrors deserve sympathy?
Guzman is a likable man who is often “confused” during their visits at the 10 South wing of the Metropolitan Correction Center (MCC) in Lower Manhattan, Lichtman says. The El Chapo of the public’s imagination is a “myth,” he insists.
“I’ve made no secret with my disgust at how my client’s been treated,” he adds, claiming Guzman is kept in solitary for up to 23 hours a day in a cell in which the lights can’t be turned off.
El Chapo may have escaped Mexico’s toughest lockdowns with inside help, but the lawyer jokes that his client would have to pay off “300 employees” at the MCC to escape.
“They’re acting like he’s a threat to break out, which is laughable when you see his conditions. But they’re doing what they can get away with.”
Lichtman says he has been “struggling through about a million pieces of paper and thousands of calls,” as the Brooklyn showdown starts. “I’ll work until the bell rings.”
For Koretskyy, meanwhile, things are moving considerably slower. He is not expected to be extradited by the time Guzman goes before Judge Brian Cogan and the jury.
The U.S. formalized a request for his extradition on April 24 and Curacao agreed to it in May. But because the island is a Dutch territory, Koretskyy has appealed that decision to the Supreme Court of the Netherlands. The process is said to normally take up to nine months.
“He doesn’t want to be extradited,” one official said. “He’s fighting it with all means possible.”
The part of me that lurks underneath isn t finished grappling with this French journalist acting the tough, hard-bitten reporter
The tests claim to be able to identify food sensitivities associated with headaches, lethargy, brain fog, depression and an huge array of other symptoms
We concluded that practically all of western Canada, and the sizeable conservative minority in eastern Canada, were practically unrepresented in the national media
What should not change are the ideas and perspectives that animate the National Post. Its founding insight is as correct today as it was two decades ago