Blindfolded and surrounded by armed guards, Jose Ruben Gil said he never knew where he was going, but when the helicopter landed at an undisclosed location in Mexico, the first thing he saw was a mansion on a hill.
It was 2003 and Gil, eager to increase the supply of drugs flowing his way, said he was summoned by leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel, one of the world's most powerful and violent organized crime organizations.
Gil, who took the witness stand in Buffalo federal court last week, said it was his first and only face-to-face meeting with Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán.
"It may seem like something out of Hollywood, but it isn't," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Meghan A. Tokash. "It's real life."
Gil's account of his meeting with Guzmán and Sinaloa leader Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada García came during the trial of two men accused of overseeing one of the largest drug rings to ever operate in Western New York.
Prosecutors claim the California-to-Buffalo drug network was led by Gil and Herman Aguirre, with Troy Gillon serving as their contact here. Aguirre and Gillon are the defendants on trial before U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. Vilardo.
At the core of the case is the allegation that the three men oversaw a drug trafficking organization that became a major supplier of cocaine, heroin and fentanyl in 2014 and 2015 and, during one nine-month period, shipped 3,300 pounds of narcotics here.
Now cooperating with the government, Gil took the jury through his 15 years of on-again, off-again drug trafficking and his dealings with Guzmán and the cartel. El Chapo is currently on trial in a separate case in New York City.
Gil said the meeting with Guzmán and Zambada, who he described as the cartel's No. 1 man at the time, led to an increase in the amount of cocaine coming his way.
It also strengthened a relationship that would later turn sour when 10 kilograms of heroin suddenly went missing. Gil, living in California at the time, said he tried to flee but was eventually tracked down.
'There were three gang members," he told the jury. "They found me and tried to kidnap me."
Gil said he escaped and fled to a nearby police station, where the three men were arrested.
Unfortunately for him, that didn't end his debt to the cartel.
Born in Mexico, Gil, now 52, moved to the United States as a teenager and became a citizen 18 years ago. As a young man, he opened a trucking business in California that initially flourished but over time fell into financial decline.
In 1999, he began transporting different cargo — marijuana and eventually cocaine and heroin. He would also carry cash on his return trips to California.
Four years later, Gil, anxious to increase his supply, made contact with the Sinaloa Cartel and eventually met with Guzmán and Zambada.
During his testimony, he talked about the intense security surrounding the mansion and the cartel leaders who were there.
"Chapo," he said.
"El Chapo was there?" asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael P. Felicetta.
"Yes," Gil answered.
He said the meeting led to a surge in drugs flowing his way and a corresponding increase in business.
A few years later, Gil told the jury, he started to see signs of kidney disease — even now, he receives dialysis — and decided he wanted out of the drug business.
Even more important, his father, who was still in Mexico, had been kidnapped and killed, and Gil was frustrated with the lack of progress by local police investigating the murder.
By this time, he said, he was also a wealthy man.
"I had $30 million in cash in accounts," he said.
He quit the business, moved back to Mexico and, eager to lean on the cops looking into his father's murder, ran for mayor of Izúcar de Matamoros in Puebla. He won.
The police eventually solved the murder and the four men responsible for the killing went to prison.
Gil said he lost his fortune in a number of bad investments in Mexico. He also found himself in trouble with the law and, upon his return to California for a family visit, was arrested on drug charges.
He served nearly five years in prison and, shortly after his release, found himself again confronting cartel leaders who believed he still owed them money.
"I told them, 'I don't have it,' so they told me to sell drugs," he said.
One of the first places he shipped to was Buffalo, and also Niagara Falls, and what started as a strictly marijuana business quickly escalated to include cocaine and heroin.
As part of his California-to-Buffalo network, he said he worked hand in hand with the two men on trial — Aguirre and Gillon.
Prosecutors say Aguirre, who is charged with conspiracy and money laundering, was the organization's link to the cartel and Gillon its connection here.
"We were in contact every day," Gil said of Aguirre at one point.
While on the witness stand, the former trucking company owner described in detail how he would hide the cocaine and heroin he was shipping by mail or truck.
In one shipment, he used boxes of air purifiers. He gutted the insides, filled them with cocaine and reboxed them.
When he was finally arrested again, he said he took sole responsibility for what the Drug Enforcement Administration and local police found at a warehouse in California.
"If I were to tell something, my family would be in jeopardy," he told the jury.
In the end, Gil took a plea deal and agreed to testify against Aguirre and Gillon. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison but is hoping the judge will give him 20 years.
"I'm hoping for a benefit," he said of his cooperation.
Gil will resume his testimony on Monday.