WASHINGTON — In what appeared to be a new blow to Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, the imprisoned son of the cartel’s co-leader offered a secret guilty plea to narcotics trafficking charges last year and has been cooperating ever since with U.S. agents, prosecutors said Thursday.
The plea deal was made public in Chicago, where Vicente Zambada Niebla, 39, has been imprisoned since his extradition from Mexico in February 2010.
Zambada is the son of Ismael Zambada, a co-founder of the Sinaloa Cartel, which is based in the state of the same name in northwest Mexico but has tentacles that extend around the world and deeply into the United States.
The elder Zambada, who remains at large, is thought to have become the sole leader of the cartel after the arrest Feb. 22 of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, considered the world’s most-wanted drug lord.
A Department of Justice statement didn’t make clear why the younger Zambada’s plea deal was kept secret for more than a year or why it was made public now. Nor did it indicate whether he’d offered information that might have helped lead to Guzman’s arrest in an oceanfront condominium in Mazatlan.
Zambada’s cooperation with U.S. prosecutors comes in the hopes of minimizing a possible life sentence for drug trafficking and a possible fine of $4 million.
U.S. and Mexican agents arrested Zambada in a five-star Mexico City hotel in 2009. His lawyers later argued that U.S. agents had reneged on an agreement to offer Zambada immunity in exchange for his providing information about fellow Mexican drug traffickers.
In signing the plea deal, Zambada admitted to being a “high-level member” of the Sinaloa Cartel from 2005 to 2008 and serving as a “surrogate for his father” in coordinating deliveries of cocaine from Colombia and Panama to Mexico. He also acknowledged facilitating the smuggling of heroin and cocaine to the United States, specifically Chicago, where the city’s crime commission last year named Guzman “Public Enemy No. 1.”
The cartel used a variety of means in smuggling, the 23-page plea agreement said, including “private aircraft, submarines and other submersible and semi-submersible vessels, container ships, go-fast boats, fishing vessels, buses, rail cars, tractor-trailers and automobiles.”
It said that on “multiple occasions” Zambada had arranged bribes “to local, state and federal law enforcement officials in the Mexican government for the purpose of facilitating the Sinaloa Cartel’s narcotics trafficking business.”
The families of Zambada and Guzman are thought to be deeply involved in narcotics trafficking. Zambada’s younger brother, 23-year-old Serafin, a U.S. citizen, was arrested last November when he crossed into the United States from Nogales.
Whatever information Vicente Zambada offers U.S. prosecutors, he’s unlikely to implicate his family, said Scott Stewart, vice president of analysis at Stratfor, an Austin, Texas, strategic forecasting consultancy.
“I can’t see him ratting out his brother or his dad,” Stewart said.
But Zambada had little choice if he ever wanted to step outside a U.S. prison again, said Gary Hale, the former intelligence chief for the Houston office of the Drug Enforcement Administration, who’s now a principal in Grupo Savant, an intelligence consulting firm.
“The only way to reduce your sentence is to give something to the government,” Hale said.
If the latest blows weaken the Sinaloa Cartel, it might mark an opportunity for rival cartels in two border cities, the Arellano Felix organization in Tijuana and the Carrillo Fuentes group in Ciudad Juarez, to grow again.
“That’s one of the trends we’re looking at right now, a resurgence by them,” said Stewart.
RioDoce, a newspaper in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state, reported Thursday that the body of Guzman’s feared security chief, Manuel Alejandro Aponte Gomez, had been found earlier this week outside the city. Known by the nickname “El Bravo,” Aponte is known to have been close to two of Guzman’s sons, Alfredo and Ivan.