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Judge: Reputed Mexican druglord didn’t prove claim he was informant

Vicente Zambada-Nieblone suspected leaders Sinalodrug cartel is shown custody Mexico City March 2009. | AFP/Getty Images

Vicente Zambada-Niebla, one of the suspected leaders of the Sinaloa drug cartel, is shown in custody in Mexico City in March 2009. | AFP/Getty Images

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Updated: May 7, 2012 8:16AM

A federal judge in Chicago refused Thursday to dismiss charges against a reputed Mexican drug kingpin who claimed he was working as an informant for the government.

Vicente Zambada-Niebla failed to provide evidence to rebut the government’s contention that he was never granted immunity from prosecution on drug-trafficking charges, U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo found.

Zambada-Niebla is the highest-ranking reputed member of the Sinaloa cartel in U.S. custody in a case being tried in Chicago against members of the drug-trafficking organization which authorities say is headed by Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman, described by the U.S. Treasury Department as the “world’s most powerful drug trafficker.”

Castillo’s written ruling offers a glimpse into the secret workings of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Mexico.

According to the judge’s ruling, Sinaloa cartel lawyer Humberto Loya-Castro was a confidant to Guzman and right-hand man Ismael Zambada-Garcia, who is Zambada-Niebla’s father.

After Loya-Castro was charged in a narcotics case in California in 1995, he started providing information to DEA agents about Mexican drug trafficking. The case against Loya-Castro was dismissed in 2008 at the request of prosecutors.

In 2008, he proposed a meeting between his DEA contact and Zambada-Niebla. On March 17, 2009, they met with DEA agents at a hotel in Mexico City. Hours later, Zambada-Niebla was arrested by Mexican officials.

Prosecutors say Loya-Castro brought Zambada-Niebla to meet DEA agents at the hotel against the agents’ instructions.

“According to the government, [Zambada-Niebla] conveyed his interest and willingness to cooperate with the U.S. government, but the DEA agents told him they ‘were not authorized to meet with him, much less have substantive discussions with him,’ ” the judge wrote.

Zambada-Niebla argued that Loya-Castro had negotiated an immunity deal for him; that he provided information to Loya-Castro about rival cartels that was then passed on to the U.S. government; and that he traveled to Mexico City at great risk to himself for the meeting with DEA agents because he was assured he had immunity from prosecution.

The judge said Zambada-Niebla didn’t present enough evidence to refute the government’s position that he was never granted immunity.

Last year, Zambada-Niebla was moved from the federal lockup in Chicago to a prison in Michigan after complaining about conditions in the Chicago lockup. Federal authorities were concerned he was an escape risk and potential assassination target.

In an unrelated drug-trafficking case in Chicago last year, a defendant testified that he met Zambada-Niebla in the federal lockup here and that Zambada-Niebla sought information to have two co-defendants killed. Those defendants — Chicago natives Pedro and Margarito Flores — are cooperating with prosecutors in the case against Zambada-Niebla, court records show.

Guzman and Zambada-Niebla’s father remain fugitives in the case, officials say.

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