Just over a year ago, the highest-ranking leader of the notorious Sinaloa drug cartel ever to be arrested on U.S. charges stood in a quiet federal courtroom in Chicago for a secret hearing.
Raising his right hand and speaking through a Spanish interpreter, Jesus Vicente Zambada-Niebla, a top Sinaloa lieutenant known as “Mayito,” admitted that for years he acted as the key coordinator of a billion-dollar cocaine and heroin operation on behalf of a faction of the cartel run by his father.
Then came the real bombshell: He was cooperating with the U.S. government in its case against his former boss, captured Sinaloa loader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
On Thursday, the events of that April 2013 hearing were made public for the first time as prosecutors unsealed Zambada-Niebla's 23-page plea agreement.
While the impact of his cooperation remains unclear, it's a major breakthrough for federal prosecutors and could boost their efforts to extradite Guzman to Chicago to stand trial. He remains jailed on other charges in Mexico after his apprehension in February.
Under federal sentencing guidelines, Zambada-Niebla faces life in prison, but prosecutors said that if he continues to “provide full and truthful cooperation,” including possible testimony, they will seek an unspecified break in his sentence. As part of the plea deal, he agreed not to fight an order to forfeit a staggering $1.37 billion in ill-gotten proceeds by the cartel.
Zambada-Niebla, 39, is the son of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who is widely believed to have taken control of the vast Sinaloa enterprise after Guzman's capture. Zambada-Niebla was arrested in 2009 in Mexico City on a sweeping indictment charging him, Guzman, his father and other alleged Sinaloa leaders in what is considered the most significant drug case in Chicago history.
Zambada-Niebla admitted in his plea agreement that from May 2005 to December 2008, he was responsible for many aspects of the Sinaloa cartel's drug trafficking operations in his role “as a trusted lieutenant for his father.”
According to the plea deal, he coordinated the importation of multiton quantities of cocaine from Colombia and Panama into Mexico and facilitated the transportation and storage of the shipments there. The cartel smuggled drugs by jumbo jets, speedboats, submarines, tunnels and other means and used violence and threats against rival cartels and law enforcement in Mexico to facilitate its business, the plea said.
The stunning news of Zambada-Niebla's cooperation marked the latest twist in a case that has been filled with intrigue. After he was extradited to Chicago in 2010, authorities at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in the Loop refused to let him exercise in the high-rise’s rooftop yard, citing concern over an assassination attempt or escape by helicopter.
Zambada-Niebla was later moved to a Michigan facility, and for years he ap-
peared in court in Chicago only via teleconference. After his guilty plea, he was secretly moved to an undisclosed location, authorities said. The Federal Bureau of Prisons website has no record of his whereabouts.
In 2011, his attorneys tried to get the charges against him thrown out, arguing he'd been granted immunity from prosecution due to his work as an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Prosecutors denied there was any such agreement, and U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo denied the motion in 2012, court records show.
At the center of the indictment are Pedro and Margarito Flores, twin brothers from Chicago's West Side who had risen in the ranks of Guzman's organization before providing key cooperation.
In October 2008, Margarito Flores attended a meeting with Zambada-Niebla, Guzman and other cartel leaders at a mountaintop compound in Mexico, the charges allege. Flores told authorities that Guzman discussed a plot to attack a U.S. or Mexican government or media building in retaliation for the recent arrest of an associate.
In that same conversation, Zambada-Niebla turned to Flores and asked him to find somebody who could give him “big, powerful weapons” to help carry out the attack, according to court records.
“We don't want Middle Eastern or Asian guns, we want big U.S. guns or RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades),” said Zambada-Niebla, according to Flores' account of the talk in court records. “We don't need one, we need a lot of them.”
Court records show Flores later secretly recorded a telephone conversation with Zambada-Niebla, telling him the weapons were going to cost twice as much as they'd thought. “That's fine, just let me know,” Zambada-Niebla replied, according to court records.
Zambada-Niebla's father remains a fugitive, believed to be hiding in the Mexican sierra where the family got its start as ranchers. But his younger brother, Serafin Zambada, was arrested late last year and charged in a separate drug trafficking conspiracy in San Diego, records show.
At the secret plea change hearing last April, Castillo asked Zambada-Niebla if he’d ever had a regular job.
“Farming and cattle raising,” Zambada-Niebla said in Spanish, according to a court transcript. “And I worked at a company belonging to my mother.”