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Feds: Top Sinaloa Cartel member cooperating with prosecutors

Jesus Vicente Zambada-Niebla

Jesus Vicente Zambada-Niebla

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Updated: May 12, 2014 6:27AM

The highest-ranking member of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel in U.S. custody secretly pleaded guilty a year ago and is cooperating with Chicago prosecutors.

Jesus Vicente Zambada-Niebla — a close associate of Chicago’s “Public Enemy Number One,” recently-arrested drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman-Loera — admitted he coordinated shipments of tons of cocaine and heroin and has vowed to provide further information to the U.S. government in a bid to avoid a life sentence.

Signed in April, 2013, but only finally unsealed by U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo Thursday morning, Zambada-Niebla’s plea deal is a major breakthrough in the biggest drugs case ever brought in this city.

And it may help explain why Chicago’s DEA boss Jack Riley was so confident that “El Chapo” also will eventually face justice in a Loop courtroom. Though El Chapo has been indicted in multiple U.S. jurisdictions and may never be extradited from Mexico, Riley said on the morning of the drug lord’s arrest by Mexican authorities in February that Chicago has “the strongest case” against him.

Zambada-Niebla, 39, is the son of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who authorities believe took control of the Sinaloa cartel following El Chapo’s arrest.

Arrested in Mexico in 2009 and extradited to the U.S. a year later, he was considered such a flight risk that the Bureau of Prisons barred him from exercising on the roof of the high-rise downtown Metropolitan Correctional Center, citing intelligence that the cartel planned to use a helicopter to help him escape.

He was moved to a federal prison in Michigan, partly for his own safety, but in 2011 failed to convince Judge Castillo that he had been offered immunity from prosecution in return for acting as an informant.

In his plea deal, he admits he was responsible for many aspects of the cartel’s drug trafficking operations, “both independently and as a trusted lieutenant for his father.”

He acknowledged that he helped coordinate the importation of tons of cocaine from Central and South American countries, including Colombia and Panama, into the interior of Mexico, and the transportation and storage of shipments within Mexico, as well as sending large shipments of cocaine and heroin into Chicago.

Prosecutors say the cartel used planes, submarines, container ships, speed boats, fishing vessels, buses, rail cars, tractor-trailers and automobiles to ship their dope.

And court records paint Zambada-Niebla as a violent man, who was protected by the “ubiquitous presence” of “military-caliber weapons.”

When Margarito Flores — one of two twins from Chicago’s West Side who provided key evidence against the cartel — travelled to El Chapo’s mountaintop lair in 2008, it was Zambada-Niebla who told him to help find “big, powerful weapons” for an attack on a U.S. or Mexican government building in Mexico City, the papers allege.

“We don’t want Middle Eastern or Asian guns, we want big U.S. guns or (rocket-propelled grenades),” Zambada-Niebla told Flores, according to court records. “We don’t need one, we need a lot of them.”

U.S. Attorney Zach Fardon hailed Zambada-Niebla’s plea to a single count of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute multiple kilograms of cocaine and heroin Thursday morning as a “testament to the tireless determination of the leadership and special agents of DEA’s Chicago office to hold accountable those individuals at the highest levels of the drug trafficking cartels who are responsible for flooding Chicago with cocaine and heroin and reaping the profits.”

Under the deal, Zambada-Niebla faces at least 10 years behind bars, and a fine of up to $4 million. He also has promised not to fight a forfeiture order seeking more than $1.37 billion.

But if he provides “full and truthful cooperation” against other members of the cartel, the government will try to spare him from a life sentence, the deal says.

Though another codefendant charged alongside Zambada-Niebla, Tomas Arevalo-Renteria, also pleaded guilty last month, a third codefendant, Alfredo Vasquez-Hernandez, abandoned his earlier plan to plead guilty and is due to stand trial next month.


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