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Sinaloa Cartel boss who supplied Chicago: I was a DEA snitch

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: November 16, 2011 1:23AM

Vicente Zambada-Niebla — the son of one of Mexico’s biggest drug kingpins — lived in the lap of luxury and had 24-hour armed security.

Zambada-Niebla allegedly oversaw the export of tons of narcotics into Chicago and other cities, using trains, ships, Boeing 747 cargo jets and even submarines.

But now he says that he, as well as other top members of the infamous Sinaloa Cartel, lived a secret life — one that should give him a get-out-of-jail-free card: He says he was a golden snitch for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

In court documents, Zambada-Niebla says that DEA agents allowed him and other leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel to operate their drug business without interference. In exchange, he says, he and other Sinaloa Cartel members provided information to the DEA about rival drug cartels in Mexico.

And he says he was promised immunity from prosecution.

“The United States government considered the arrangements with the Sinaloa Cartel an acceptable price to pay because the principal objective was the destruction and dismantling of rival cartels by using the assistance of the Sinaloa Cartel,” lawyers for Zambada-Niebla say in a court filing in U.S. District Court in Chicago.

U.S. authorities disregarded the fact that “tons of illicit drugs continued to be smuggled into Chicago and other parts of the United States and consumption continued virtually unabated,” according to the court filing.

A war between the Sinaloa Cartel and its rivals has led to thousands of killings in Mexico in recent years.

Federal prosecutors deny that Zambada-Niebla acted with the permission of the U.S. government.

And they want a judge to block him from using that defense unless he can provide the names of the government officials who he says authorized him to import cocaine and heroin into the United States.

Even then, Zambada-Niebla is barred from using that as a defense unless he met directly with U.S. officials who approved his alleged criminal activity, prosecutors say.

Most of the Sinaloa Cartel’s communications with the DEA were through a cartel lawyer, Humberto Loya-Castro, according to Zambada-Niebla. He says Loya-Castro fed information to agents about rival cartels starting before 2004. Criminal charges against Loya-Castro in San Diego were dropped in 2008 because of his cooperation, Zambada-Niebla says.

In March 2009, Loya-Castro arranged for Zambada-Niebla to meet DEA agents at a Sheraton Hotel in Mexico City, according to the court filing.

Zambada-Niebla says he gave the U.S. drug agents information about rival cartels and, in return, was assured that a pending indictment against him in Washington, D.C., would be dismissed and that he would be immune from further prosecution.

The next day, though, he was arrested by Mexican authorities in an upscale neighborhood in Mexico City along with five bodyguards armed with AR-15 assault rifles. He was then extradited to Chicago to face charges in what prosecutors have described as one of the largest narcotics cases ever brought here.

The indictment against Zambada-Niebla charges him and about three dozen other defendants with conspiring to import tons of cocaine and “multi-kilo” quantities of heroin to Chicago and elsewhere between 2005 and 2008. He is being held under high security in a federal lockup in downtown Chicago.

Zambada-Niebla claims that his cartel’s criminal activities were sanctioned by the regional assistant for the DEA in South America — as well as by the general director of the DEA for Mexico and DEA agents in several Mexican cities including Monterrey, Hermosillo and Mexico City. He says in the court filing that agents from the FBI and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement were involved, too.

He also says that DEA officials tipped Loya-Castro about U.S. and Mexican investigations, allowing top Sinaloa Cartel leaders such as Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman-Loera and Zambada-Niebla’s own father, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, to avoid capture.

Those men, also charged in the Chicago case, remain fugitives. Guzman-Loera is considered one of the world’s top drug kingpins.

“The United States government and its various agencies have a long history of providing benefits, permission and immunity to criminals and their organizations to commit crimes, including murder, in return for receiving information against other criminals,” Zambada-Niebla’s court filing says. “Perhaps no better example is the celebrated case of Whitey Bulger, the Boston crime boss and murderer, who, along with other members of criminal organizations, were given carte blanche by the FBI to commit murders in order to receive information about the Italian mafia and other criminal organizations in the New England area.”

Bulger, 81, was arrested June 22 in California after 16 years on the lam. His FBI handler, former Boston FBI agent John Connolly Jr., was convicted of racketeering and obstruction of justice in 2002 for warning Bulger in 1994 that he was going to be indicted. Bulger is accused of killing 19 people.

As with Bulger, the U.S. government turned a blind eye to the crimes the Sinaloa Cartel committed, Zambada-Niebla says in his court filing.

Zambada-Niebla is seeking documents to show whether Sinaloa Cartel leaders received weapons as part of their alleged cooperation with U.S. agents.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago and the DEA both declined to comment on the case.

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