Now that Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman has been convicted of involvement in murders, high-level bribery and billions of dollars of drug dealing, two of his top Sinaloa cartel lieutenants await their fate in court cases in Chicago.
One of them, Vicente “El Vicentillo” Zambada Niebla, the son of Sinaloa cartel leader Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, testified against Guzman on Jan. 3.
Vicente Zambada was among the defendants in a massive indictment brought against El Chapo and his underlings in Chicago in 2009. Prosecutors used evidence from the Chicago case — along with cases in Miami, San Diego, Washington, New York and El Paso, Texas — in El Chapo’s three-month trial in Brooklyn.
Zambada is set to face sentencing April 25 in federal court in Chicago.
He pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy charges and cooperated with prosecutors, testifying for five hours at El Chapo’s trial. He spoke about overseeing cocaine shipments from Colombia to Mexico and from Mexico to Chicago, Los Angeles and other U.S. cities. And he said his father budgeted $1 million a month for payoffs to politicians, cops and military officials in Mexico. Zambada’s father is still on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s most-wanted list.
In his new book “Drug Warrior,” former DEA chief of operations Jack Riley writes that authorities arranged for El Mayo to call his son after he was locked up in Chicago. El Mayo gave Vicentillo permission to talk to the feds, according to Riley: “We recorded it. ‘My son, my son, how are you?’ he asked. They chatted briefly. ‘I want you to know you have my authority to cooperate, to get your life back,’ El Mayo said.”
It’s unclear whether prosecutors will recommend a lower sentence for Zambada in return for his cooperation against one of the most dangerous drug lords in history. They haven’t filed a memo with the judge yet on how much prison time they want him to serve.
Retired DEA supervisor David Lorino wouldn’t comment on the sentence he thinks Zambada should get, but he said Zambada’s testimony was critical in debunking El Chapo’s defense that he was just a front man for Zambada’s father, El Mayo.
Lorino, who managed the Chicago DEA office’s investigation of El Chapo and the Sinaloa cartel, said he thinks the kingpin will get a life sentence and serve his time in a 5-by-9-foot cell at the federal super-max prison in Colorado where other infamous criminals like Unabomber Ted Kaczynski are locked up.
“You can run and you can hide and you can pay off people and escape and dig tunnels, but we will find you and you will pay for the poison you put on the streets of our country,” Lorino said of El Chapo.
Another Sinaloa cartel lieutenant, Jesus Raul Beltran Leon, is awaiting trial in Chicago in the same case as Vicente Zambada. Beltran Leon, who prosecutors say worked for one of El Chapo’s sons, was captured in Mexico in 2014 and extradited to Chicago in 2017.
He has accused the Mexican marines of torturing him after his arrest. His lawyer Leonardo Silva said DEA agents knew of the torture but did nothing to stop it. Silva was once the top DEA agent in Monterrey, Mexico, before he admitted to a felony for making a false statement and left the agency. He asked Chief U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo to dismiss the charges against Beltran Leon because of the alleged torture.
In a ruling in September, Castillo acknowledged the allegations were disturbing.
“From a human rights perspective, this is simply intolerable,” the judge wrote. “The court is also deeply disturbed by the accusation that American law enforcement agents may be condoning or turning a blind eye to these tactics in order to bring defendants to trial in the United States.”
But Castillo said he couldn’t throw out Beltran Leon’s case on grounds of “outrageous government conduct” because the alleged torture occurred after he was charged with shipping cocaine and marijuana to the United States.
Honduras drug baron Juan Ramon Matta-Ballesteros tried to get a criminal case dismissed on similar grounds of torture after he was captured by the Honduran military and turned over to U.S. marshals in 1988, but the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled against him, creating the precedent Castillo cited in Beltran Leon’s case.
Matta was convicted of being involved in the 1985 kidnapping of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, whose murder in Mexico shook the agency.
Southwest Side twins Pedro Flores and Margarito Flores, once the top U.S. importers of El Chapo’s cocaine, got relatively light sentences of 14 years apiece after informing for the DEA against him.
Contributing: Jon Seidel