Jose Ruben Gil says it was his one-on-one meeting with Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman that led to one of the largest drug rings to ever operate in Western New York.
During a trial last year, Gil took the witness stand and testified that, blindfolded and surrounded by armed guards, he was taken by helicopter to an undisclosed location in Mexico and a mansion on a hill.
He also told the jury that his meeting there with Guzman and other leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel, one of the world's most powerful and violent organized crime organizations, increased the flow of cocaine coming his way.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. Vilardo sentenced the convicted drug trafficker to 12 years in prison.
In sentencing Gil, Vilardo pointed to the drug organization he headed, one of the largest – if not the largest – to ever operate in Western New York, and its role in bringing fentanyl and heroin into the region.
"Those drugs are really the scourge of our community, destroying people, destroying families," he said.
But Vilardo also mentioned Gil's health – he suffers from kidney disease and was in a wheelchair Wednesday – and his role as a cooperating witness. He was facing life in prison before agreeing to testify at two separate trials involving co-defendants.
"He's basically a marked man," defense attorney Joseph M. LaTona said of his client, referring to the Sinaloa cartel. "Aside from ISIS and al-Qaeda, I don't think there's a more dangerous organization in the world."
In seeking leniency, LaTona pointed to Gil's poor health and asked the judge to fashion a sentence that would allow him to someday see his family again.
"Last week, he almost died, judge," LaTona said at one point.
Gil's account of his meeting with Guzmán and Sinaloa cartel leader Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada García came during the trial of two men accused of overseeing the Mexico-to-California-to-Buffalo drug network.
Herman Aguirre and Troy Gillon were eventually found guilty of taking part in drug and money-laundering conspiracies. They face mandatory life sentences.
At the core of the case was the allegation that Gil, Aguirre and Gillon 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.
In the end, Gil took a plea deal and agreed to testify against Aguirre and Gillon.
While on the witness stand, he took the jury through his 15 years of on-again, off-again drug trafficking and his dealings with Guzman and the cartel. El Chapo, who was on trial in New York City at the same time last year, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Born in Mexico, Gil, now 53, moved to the United States as a teenager and became a citizen 19 years ago.
During his testimony, he told jurors that he moved back to Mexico after his father, who was still there, was kidnapped and killed. Frustrated by the lack of progress by local police investigating the murder, he ran for mayor of Izúcar de Matamoros in Puebla and won.
By this time, he told the jury, he was also a wealthy man.
"I had $30 million in cash in accounts," he said.
Gil said he lost his fortune in a number of bad investments in Mexico.