He was a “narco-junior” — the son of one of Mexico’s most powerful drug traffickers.
But Vicente Zambada-Niebla was much more than that. He was the logistics guru for Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, coordinating trains, ships, even Boeing 747s and submarines to move cocaine and heroin from South America to Mexico.
Known as El Vicentillo or Mayito, he supervised the Chicago twins Pedro Flores and Margarito Flores, who brought in as much as to 2,000 kilograms of cocaine a month to Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Detroit, Philadelphia and Columbus, Ohio.
In 2009, Zambada-Niebla ended up in handcuffs, as so many other top underlings in the Sinaloa drug cartel have.
And, with his father’s approval after being taken into custody, he turned on El Chapo, his testimony earlier this year in Brooklyn helping to convict the most-wanted criminal in the world.
On Thursday, Zambada-Niebla, 44, one of the biggest druglords ever to be brought to justice in Chicago, will be taken to a federal courtroom in the Loop, where he’ll find out how big of a break a judge will give him for cooperating to bring down El Chapo.
Guzman, still to be sentenced, is facing life in prison.
Zambada-Niebla is likely to fare far better. He, too, faces a possible life term. But prosecutors are asking Chief U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo to give him 17 years in prison, citing his testimony against Guzman and what they called his “unrivaled” cooperation that led to charges against dozens of “high-level” targets and hundreds of their associates across the United States.
Zambada-Niebla was extradited to the United States in 2010 after being charged in Chicago in a far-reaching federal indictment against Guzman and his Sinaloa cartel associates.
Zambada-Niebla’s father Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada remains a fugitive in that case. He’s on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s most-wanted list.
But in a phone call arranged by federal authorities, El Mayo gave his son the go-ahead to snitch on the cartel, according to law enforcement sources in Chicago involved in the investigation. The sources say El Mayo did so because he knew his son couldn’t say anything that would damage the ever-evolving cartel.
There’s also been widespread speculation that El Mayo might have thought Guzman, with whom he ran the cartel, had become a liability to the organization after meeting with Hollywood star Sean Penn. That thrust the cartel into the limelight when Penn wrote a story for Rolling Stone about his encounter with El Chapo.
As El Mayo’s proxy in the Sinaloa cartel, the younger Zambada coordinated deliveries of cocaine and heroin to the United States.
He also supervised minions who sent back the drug proceeds — truckloads of U.S. cash — to his father and their faction of the cartel in Mexico, according to the indictment. It was a multibillion-dollar enterprise, prosecutors say.
The indictment also tied Zambada-Niebla to the cartel’s violence.
Thousands of people have died in Mexico as a result of the drug wars the Sinaloa cartel and its rivals have waged for years. They’ve been marked by decapitations and public hangings, as well as shootings and bombings.
Despite his high-level spot in the violent cartel, DEA agents and prosecutors who met Zambada-Niebla say he came across as more aristocrat than Scarface. In the few photos of him that have been made public, he’s seen dressed in a stylish dark suit during his arrest in Mexico.
His father ran the white-collar side of the cartel, plowing drug money into real estate and other ventures, while Guzman was on the operational side — dressing like the ranchers of Sinaloa state and not only ordering but also taking part in killings, authorities say.
After Zambada-Niebla was locked up in Chicago, his lawyers said he had provided the DEA with information about rival cartels in exchange for immunity from prosecution, even meeting with them in Mexico City.
But he dropped that claim of immunity when he pleaded guilty in 2013 to trafficking more than a billion dollars in cocaine and heroin to the United States.
He also agreed to forfeit — on paper, at least — a staggering $1.37 billion to the U.S. government, though it’s unlikely to be able to collect a fraction of that.
According to prosecutors, Zambada-Niebla oversaw the Flores brothers — believed to have been the biggest drug dealers in Chicago history — who became responsible for the Sinaloa cartel’s cocaine once it arrived at their warehouses.
When the Illinois State Police seized a 398-kilo load of cocaine from a truck sent to the Chicago suburbs by Zambada-Niebla in June 2005, the cartel ate the multimillion-dollar loss.
Margarito Flores has said he met with Zambada-Niebla, El Mayo and Guzman in the mountains of northern Mexico in October 2008 after the brothers agreed to cooperate with the U.S. government against the Sinaloa cartel.
After they talked about the drug business, Zambada-Niebla told Flores to find someone who could provide the cartel with military-grade U.S. guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Guzman then said to Flores “make it your job,” according to prosecutors.
They say that, later, on an airstrip, Zambada-Niebla told Flores, “I want to blow up some buildings. … You want to be really good with me? Get me my shit, my guns.”
The Flores brothers, who were known as the Twins, pleaded guilty to drug charges in 2015 and were given relatively light prison sentences of 14 years each. Like his brother, Pedro Flores also testified against Guzman at his trial in Brooklyn.
When they were sentenced, the judge told the Flores brothers that, even after they do their time and are released into the government’s witness-protection program, they’ll always have to worry about being hunted down by cartel hit men.
Zambada-Niebla wanted them killed, according to another drug dealer’s testimony in federal court in Chicago in 2011. Saul Rodriguez, a Chicago drug trafficker, testified that Zambada-Niebla wanted the Flores twins killed.
Rodriguez and Zambada-Niebla had been held in the same segregation unit in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown Chicago.
Rodriguez testified that Zambada-Niebla transferred about $6,600 to one of Rodriguez’s lawyers in exchange for information about the twins that Rodriguez gave them.
Some law enforcement officials close to the investigation have said they doubt Rodriguez’s claims.
Zambada-Niebla was considered to be a security risk, so he was moved from Chicago to the federal prison in Milan, Michigan, while awaiting sentencing, though authorities have refused to say where he’s been held most recently.
In 2010, U.S. Bureau of Prisons officials barred him from exercising on the roof of the high-rise Metropolitan Correctional Center in the Loop, citing the Sinaloa cartel’s unlimited resources and intelligence that the cartel was planning to use a helicopter to help him escape from the roof.