A US federal court has made public a controversial plea deal with the son of Sinaloa Cartel leader Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada that reveals details of the organization’s operations and raises the question: who may the extradited narco give up in exchange for a reduced sentence?
Jesus Vicente Zambada Niebla, alias “Vicentillo,” admitted that from 2005 to 2008 he was responsible for a large portion of the Sinaloa Cartel’s drug trafficking operations in his role “as a trusted lieutenant for his father,” according to a plea agreement (pdf) unsealed by prosecutors in an Illinois courtroom.
The document, signed on April 3, 2013, details Zambada Niebla’s coordination of the movement of “multi-ton” shipments of US-bound cocaine from Panama and Colombia into Mexico, using a wide variety of vehicles including private aircraft, submarines, container ships, go-fast boats and tractor-trailers. He also admitted to facilitating the distribution of large quantities of heroin in Chicago and other parts of the United States and to bribing Mexican officials.
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The crime of conspiring to distribute cocaine and heroin to which Zambada-Niebla pleaded guilty carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison. As part of the plea deal, prosecutors agreed to recommend a reduced sentence in lieu of the life sentence he would likely have faced, according to the Wall Street Journal.
For his part, Zambada-Niebla agreed to forfeit $1.37 billion in ill-gotten gains and assets.
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Though Zambada Niebla’s knowledge of the cartel’s tactics are likely out of date after several years in jail, he still harbors a wealth of information about key members and associates. The document does not detail whether Zambada Niebla has yet given up any of these members as part of the deal, but will likely contribute to rumors the Zambada family played a part in the recent arrest of the group’s top leader, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
The saga of Zambada-Niebla’s cooperation with the US government has been steeped in intrigue since his arrest in 2009, with the defense claiming US officials permitted him to smuggle cocaine for a five year period in exchange for information on his rivals.
While much has been made of the plea deal, bargaining with criminals is a common tactic used by the US justice system to build cases. Zambada Niebla’s plea deal also makes few promises — it stipulates that prosecutors can only recommend a reduced sentence, and that even this is contingent on his full cooperation with the US Attorney General’s Office.
This could make things very uncomfortable for his father, who is the presumed leader of the cartel after Guzman’s arrest, and it remains to be seen how far Zambada Niebla will go to protect his own interests.