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15-year prison sentence for once-powerful drug trafficker who helped feds in ‘El Chapo’ case

Prosecutors had recommended a 17-year sentence for Vicente Zambada-Niebla, the Sinaloa drug cartel’s logistics guru.

Vicente “El Vicentillo” Zambada-Niebla is one of the biggest druglords ever to be brought to justice in Chicago.
Vicente “El Vicentillo” Zambada-Niebla is one of the biggest druglords ever to be brought to justice in Chicago.
AP files

Chicago’s chief federal judge offered a rebuke to President Donald Trump on Thursday as he delivered a 15-year prison sentence to a once-powerful drug trafficker who helped convict Sinaloa kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera.

U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo complained about Trump’s plan to build a wall on the border with Mexico and decried sentiment against government “cooperators” as he ruled on the fate of Vicente Zambada-Niebla, the Sinaloa cartel’s onetime logistics guru who testified against “El Chapo” in Brooklyn this year.

Castillo went so far as to say, “if there is a so-called drug war, we have lost it.” The judge added later, “we cannot afford to lose the war on crime.”

Zambada-Niebla’s sentencing hearing took place amid some of the heaviest security seen at the Loop’s Dirksen Federal Courthouse in recent years. Security officers with dogs roamed the premises, and even courthouse employees were subject to security screening in the lobby. Guards kept big guns in plain sight.

Federal prosecutors have predicted Zambada-Niebla “would in all likelihood be killed” absent government protection, which is expected to continue after he leaves prison.

alleged drug trafficker Vicente Zambada Niebla
Vicente Zambada-Niebla

Zambada-Niebla once coordinated trains, ships, submarines and even Boeing 747s as they moved cocaine and heroin from South America to Mexico for “El Chapo.” He supervised Pedro Flores and Margarito Flores, the twin brothers who brought up to 2,000 kilograms of cocaine a month into Chicago and other major U.S. cities.

He also apparently lost track of how often he passed along an order to have someone killed, testifying earlier this year only that he did so “several times.” He denied killing anyone himself.

Zambada-Niebla most notably testified against “El Chapo,” but federal prosecutors said he offered “unrivaled” cooperation that led to charges against dozens of “high-level” targets and hundreds of their associates. Even though he faced life in prison, they sought only 17 years for a man they called “one of the most well-known cooperating witnesses in the world.”

They also said his testimony during the “El Chapo” trial “clearly described the criminal culpability of his own father.” Zambada-Niebla is the son of the fugitive Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who ran the white-collar side of the Sinaloa cartel.

Before learning his sentence Thursday, Zambada-Niebla offered apologies for his crimes through a translator. He told the judge, “I made some bad decisions … which I accepted, and I continue to accept, full responsibility for.”

Zambada-Niebla felt “content” with Castillo’s 15-year sentence, his defense lawyer said later. Because he already has spent a decade in custody, Zambada could leave prison in just a few years. Castillo said he would adjust his order to make sure Zambada gets credit for 11 months he spent behind bars in Mexico in 2009 and 2010.

Fashioning Zambada-Niebla’s sentence was “difficult for a lot of different reasons,” Castillo said. He began by noting that Zambada-Niebla was “one of the highest people” on the drug chain he had ever sentenced. He read from Zambada-Niebla’s testimony about having people killed and said, “you certainly facilitated this whole dimension of people dying, and I have to consider that.”

But Castillo also complained that, “many in Washington want to build a wall, when most of these drugs are coming in in a fashion where a wall will do nothing — nothing.”

The judge also turned to Zambada-Niebla’s cooperation, an act he said is “now, all of a sudden in this country, become something that is looked down upon.” He added: “Frankly, I don’t understand it from my vantage point of 25 years on the bench.”

Without naming the president, Castillo cited Trump’s comments suggesting cooperation with federal prosecutors should be outlawed. The judge also quoted Sunday’s front-page Chicago Sun-Times headline about Zambada-Niebla, which called him — “The Cartel Kid Who Sold Out ‘El Chapo.’”

Castillo said the newspaper had it backward.

“You cooperated with the United States of America,” Castillo said.

Contributing: Frank Main