On April 10, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois under the Department of Justice (DOJ) unsealed the plea agreement that Sinaloa Cartel leader Jesús Vicente Zambada Niebla, “El Vicentillo” or “El Mayito,” made with the federal court in Chicago over a year ago. Zambada Niebla is not only a former high-ranking lieutenant of the Sinaloa Cartel, but also the eldest son of Sinaloa Cartel leader Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García. The plea agreement suggest that the former cartel member is now serving as an informant for the U.S. government.
Zambada Niebla (39) was arrested in Mexico City in March 2009, and subsequently extradited to the United States in February 2010. On April 3, 2013, Zambada Niebla pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute multiple kilograms of cocaine and heroin between 2005 and 2008. As the plea agreement posted on the Department of Justice’s website reads, Zambada Niebla further admitted that, “…He was a high-level member of the Sinaloa Cartel and was responsible for many aspects of its drug trafficking operations, ‘both independently and as a trusted lieutenant for his father,’ for whom he acted as a surrogate and logistical coordinator.”
Zambada Niebla stated that he also coordinated the delivery of cocaine and heroin to wholesale distributors—including twin brothers Pedro and Margarito Flores in Chicago, who allegedly have ties with Mexican cartels—with knowledge that the narcotics would be funneled into the United States. Distributors like the Flores brothers would send payments for the drugs to cartel leaders, including Zambada Niebla. Not only did Zambada Niebla admit to being aware of narcotic cash proceeds being moved from the United States to Mexico, he admitted to knowing the Sinaloa Cartel used violence and threats of violence againg both rival drug cartels and law enforcement in Mexico. The former lieutenant told U.S. federal law enforcement officials that the Sinaloa Cartel leaders “were protected by the ubiquitous presence of weapons,” many of the weapons being of military-level caliber.
Zambada Niebla’s father, El Mayo, has long stood as one of the top two most powerful figures within the Sinaloa Cartel—second only to Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera. With El Chapo’s recent arrest in February 2014, many believe Zambada Niebla’s father is outright occupying the cartel’s leadership, and filling the power vacuum El Chapo left behind. As a result, the announcement of Zambada Niebla’s plea agreement comes at an interesting time as some have questioned whether Zambda-Niebla’s cooperation with U.S. officials aided in the capture of El Chapo. Though the plea agreement made no mention of El Chapo, Zambada Niebla did identify several members of the Sinaloa Cartel—Alfredo “El Afredillo” Guzmán Salazar, Alfredo Vásquez Hernández, and Juan “Juancho” Guzmán Rocha—and the Flores brothers.
Zambada Niebla faces a maximum life sentence under the plea agreement, with a minimum sentence of ten years and a minimum fine of $4 million (USD). He also agreed to forfeit assets worth over $1.7 billion. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois stated that as long as Zambada Niebla continued to provide full and truthful cooperation throughout the investigation that the court would consider him a cooperative individual with the potential for an early release.
Zambado-Niebla’s arrest and plea agreement serve as an example of the combined effort of U.S. and Mexican law enforcement. Mexican military officials, under the Calderón administration, completed the original arrest, while the investigation was continued by U.S. law enforcement agencies including Chicago’s Drug Enforcement Agency, the IRS Criminal Investigation Division, the Chicago Police Department, and various other agencies on the local, state, and federal level.
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