When Jose Ruben Gil got out of prison six years ago, he took on a new type of yoke – a $1.8 million debt to the violent Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico.
At the time, Gil claims, he was also sitting on $30 million in cash.
So why didn't the Buffalo and Niagara Falls drug trafficker, who claims he met Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, simply cough up the money?
It's one of the many questions remaining as Gil again takes the witness stand in a case focusing on allegations that he and the two men on trial – Herman Aguirre and Troy Gillon – ran a drug ring the likes of which this region has never seen.
In just a short time on the stand this week as a prosecution witness, Gil's testimony proved colorful and captivating.
And, the defense would argue, difficult to believe.
First and foremost was his accounting of his face-to-face with El Chapo in 2003 and how his ties to the cartel allowed him to accumulate $30 million in wealth, a nest egg he claims he lost by making bad investments in Mexico.
"In the matter of two years, you went from $30 million in liquid cash to zero?" defense lawyer Matthew Lembke asked Gil at one point.
"Yes," he answered.
When Lembke asked Gil why he didn't use some of his cash to pay off his $1.8 million debt to the cartel, he said he tried instead to give them property he owned in Mexico.
Throughout his time on the stand, Gil, who has admitted his role in the drug-trafficking organization and is now testifying against others, has told the jury about alleged threats to his family.
While he was in custody at one point, representatives for the cartel visited his family on two occasions, he said. He also claims he received text threats from the cartel.
With the jury out of earshot, Gil also testified about an alleged threat by Aguirre while the two were waiting for an appearance last month before U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. Vilardo.
Gil, who had not yet pleaded guilty, claims Aguirre asked about witnesses who might testify against them and at one point indicated he would "eliminate them."
The defense noted that Gil waited two weeks to tell the prosecution about the threats and, in the end, Vilardo did not allow the jury to hear his testimony.
Even before the trial started, the allegations of threats, as well as the role of the Sinaloa Cartel, led to extraordinary security measures in the case. The Sinaloa Cartel is considered one of the most powerful and violent organized crime organizations in the world.
Led by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Meghan A. Tokash and Michael P. Felicetta, the prosecution centers around allegations that Gil and Aguirre led a criminal organization that trafficked cocaine, heroin and fentanyl from the cartel.
Prosecutors say the drugs were shipped to California and then transported by mail or truck to areas in the east, including Western New York.
In some cases, the drugs were shipped in containers labeled "sea cucumbers," a bottom-dwelling ocean scavenger and popular Japanese delicacy.
Indicted with 15 others, Gil and Aguirre were accused of being leaders of the drug ring, and prosecutors said both men had ties to the cartel.
They also claim El Chapo was among those who oversaw the drug shipments here. The trial here is taking place while Guzman stands trial in New York City, where security is even more intense.
During the first week of testimony, prosecutors have portrayed Gillon as one of the organization's premier contacts here. Gillon is represented by Jason L. Schmidt of Fredonia.
At the time of his arrest in California, Gil, a native of Mexico and U.S. citizen, was living in Mexico and serving as mayor of Izúcar de Matamoros in Puebla, Mexico.
His testimony will continue next week.