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Feds fear assassination, escape if drug lord allowed on rooftop gym

Vicente Zambada

Vicente Zambada

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Updated: November 24, 2011 12:25AM

Federal prosecutors are opposed to letting an alleged Mexican drug kingpin exercise on the rooftop of a high-rise jail in the Loop because they fear an assassin might try to kill him or he might attempt to escape.

Vicente Zambada-Niebla is the son of one of Mexico’s biggest drug lords and is a defendant here in one of the highest profile drug prosecutions in the nation. His lawyers have asked the court to let him have outdoor recreation. Currently, he’s allowed to use an indoor gym five hours a week.

Zambada-Niebla, a member of the Sinaloa Cartel, faces trial early next year for allegedly overseeing the export of tons of narcotics into Chicago and other cities using trains, ships, cargo jets and submarines. For years, he has been targeted for assassination by rival cartels, federal officials say.

Zambada-Niebla claims he was providing information to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in exchange for immunity for prosecution, which federal authorities deny.

Authorities do admit, however, that a fugitive member of the Sinaloa Cartel, whom Zambada-Niebla described as a lawyer for the organization, was a cooperator.

In court papers filed Friday, federal prosecutors asked the court to deny Zambada-Niebla’s request for outdoor recreation, pointing to an analysis by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons estimating it would cost an extra $9,200 a week to provide security for him to exercise on the roof. That’s the only outdoor recreation area in the jail.

Because of a power struggle among the drug cartels in Mexico, “the possibility of an assassination attempt on Mr. Zambada is substantial,” wrote Catherine Linaweaver, warden of the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago.

“Mr. Zambada would make an easy target as he would be the only inmate allowed on the rooftop at the time, and there are numerous high-rise buildings surrounding the facility that neither myself nor fellow law enforcement have any control over,” she wrote. “Attacks could be easily staged from those buildings. Further, the likelihood of an attempted escape by any means is very real.”

Linaweaver noted that one of the co-leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, is listed as a billionaire by Forbes magazine and used his wealth to escape from a jail in Mexico in 2001. Guzman, a fugitive, is also a defendant in the Chicago drug case.

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