Vicente Zambada Niebla, the son of one of Mexico’s most powerful drug lords, was sentenced to 15 years in prison on Thursday morning, but could be a free man in as little as five years.
Zambada, 44, appeared contrite in Chicago federal court as he begged for forgiveness for the harm he did during his years as a high-ranking drug trafficker, and pledged to lead a moral life upon his eventual release.
“I have proven my repentance with my deeds, not just with words,” said Zambada, dressed in a well-fitting gray suit and standing with his hands clasped behind his back. “I think everyone deserves a second chance.”
Citing Zambada’s extensive cooperation with prosecutors — he’s provided information against dozens of top drug traffickers, including testifying against Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera — Judge Ruben Castillo delivered a sentence that was two years fewer than that recommended by prosecutors.
“I have often complained to prosecutors that we have the wrong people, that we need to go higher up the chain, and you are one of the highest people they have ever sent me since I’ve been on the bench,” Castillo said. “You made the right decision in cooperating.”
Zambada is the eldest son of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García, a longtime leader of the so-called Sinaloa Cartel, a federation of drug lords that has long controlled smuggling routes in western and northern Mexico. The elder Zambada has kept a lower profile than infamous Sinaloa capo El Chapo, but since the early 1990s he has held steady control over vast swathes of smuggling territory.
Once considered El Mayo’s heir apparent, Vicente Zambada pleaded guilty to a slew of drug-trafficking charges in November, and has admitted to ordering murders and kidnappings of cartel figures who wronged his father or his allies. As part of the plea agreement, Zambada agreed to forfeit more than $1 billion to make restitution for his nearly two decades of involvement in the drug trade.
Born March 24th, 1975, Zambada was groomed into his father’s empire from an early age, and spent years coordinating drug shipments and acting as his father’s surrogate. Like other so-called “narco juniors,” he grew up far removed from the dirt-poor childhood of his father, appearing more like a high-society playboy than a cold-blooded cartel boss.
By the early 2000s, Zambada had become a top leader in the cartel, and was responsible for coordinating drug shipments from South America, working out of an office in Sinaloa to receive drugs from abroad and send them north to distributors in the United States
Zambada’s career as an ascendent narco prince came screeching to a halt when Mexican police arrested him in the capital on March 17th, 2009, hours after he had met with DEA agents in a Mexico City hotel.
Following his extradition to the United States in February of 2010, Zambada attempted to use this meeting as grounds for dismissal, arguing that the agents he met with that day had promised him immunity in exchange for continuing to provide information to U.S. authorities. The government acknowledged that its agents had in fact met with Zambada that day, but argued that it had been nothing more than abortive introduction, and that its agents had not promised Zambada immunity and in any event would not have been authorized to do so. Judge Castillo eventually ruled that Zambada failed to prove that his meetings with DEA agents warranted a dismissal.
After about a year in custody, he began cooperating with U.S. authorities, and once the dam broke, he proved to be a nearly bottomless well of information about smuggling routes, narco alliances, and other factors that helped the government seize drugs, catch capos, and build cases.
One of 14 cooperating witnesses to testify during El Chapo’s marathon three-month trial in Brooklyn federal court earlier this year, Zambada delivered one of the trial’s most most wide-ranging and damning tell-alls, recounting incidents from nearly every aspect of Guzmán’s 30-year drug trafficking career.
Despite his ongoing cooperation with investigators, the decision to testify against Guzmán did not come easy to Zambada, who feared the potential wrath of the drug traffickers he was turning against, according to defense attorney Frank Perez.
“He did not want to testify,” Perez told the judge on Thursday. “He was concerned about the consequences he would suffer, and not just him but his friends and family.”
In light of that cooperation, prosecutors recommended just 17 years in prison for their star informant, arguing that his cooperation significantly mitigated the harm he had caused.
“When the defendant stopped, he stopped,” prosecutors wrote in the 23-page memorandum. “He appears to have done so for the right reasons. And he has done everything asked of him by the government, even when his cooperation came at a great personal cost.”
Speaking before the court on Thursday, Amanda Liskamm, one of the lead prosecutors in the El Chapo trial, said she hoped Castillo’s sentence would reflect that cooperation, and send a message to other high-level narcos considering a similar deal.
“There’s a need to incentivize other criminals out there who engage in serious drug trafficking who are thinking about engaging with the government,” she said, adding that Zambada was “one of the most cooperative individuals I’ve worked with.”
In his statement to the judge, Zambada acknowledged the harm he had caused, and apologized to his victims and his family alike.
“I believe every man, or person, lives on the basis of good or bad decisions, and I have made bad decisions, which I truly regret,” he said in Spanish through a translator, speaking in A soft, slightly high-pitched voice. “Today I feel like I can be a better father, a better husband, a better son, and most of all a better human being.”
According to his testimony at the trial of El Chapo, Zambada was present for countless meetings of high-ranking cartel leaders and major moments in drug-trafficking lore: he was there when El Chapo and El Mayo were reunited following Chapo’s 2001 prison break, and witnessed his father’s pledge to split profits with Guzmán; he was listening on the radio in 2004 when El Chapo’s hitmen gunned down Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes, a leader of the Juárez Cartel; he was one of the last people to speak on the phone with Chapo’s brother, Arturo Guzmán Loera, before hitmen working for Juárez murdered Guzmán in prison; and he was party to a failed peace agreement between the warring factions during a bloody struggle between the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels.
In a sentencing memo filed last week, however, prosecutors portrayed Zambada as a somewhat reluctant heir to the throne, describing repeated attempts to distance himself from his father’s empire but being drawn back into the world of drug trafficking
“[Zambada] grew up surrounded by a drug trafficking world that he initially showed no interest in, and then tried to leave behind multiple times without success,” prosecutors wrote. “Each time, fear of the infliction of violence upon him and his family, even in places far from Mexico, drew him back to the protection provided by his father’s organization.”.
The 15-year sentence issued by Castillo includes credit for time served, including the 11 months Zambada spent in Mexican prisons prior to his extradition,so Zambada is likely to be reunited with his wife and children as a free man in as little as five years. He will then be subject to an additional five years of supervised release, the terms of which ban him from any association with people he knows to be involved in the drug trade, possession of firearms, or drinking alcohol to excess.
Prior to sentencing Zambada, Judge Castillo took a moment to criticize the strategy of the war on drugs, arguing for a more humane solution to the issue of drug use.
“I am the first to admit that if there is a so-called drug war, we have lost it,” Castillo said. “There is a need for these prosecutions, but we have a need for treatment, and we need to do something about demand for drugs in this country.”
Castillo, a Clinton appointee who is the first Latino to serve as chief judge in the Northern District of Illinois, also issued a sharp, thinly-veiled rebuke of President Trump, who has often tweeted criticism of people who “flip,” or turn on former co-conspirators and cooperate with authorities.
“I don’t understand it — the reality is that 20 to 30 percent of cases rely on individuals cooperating,” Castillo said. “Someone in Washington D.C. — I don’t want to say his name — said flipping should be outlawed. Are you kidding me?”
In a brief press conference following the sentencing, Zambada’s defense attorney Frank Perez said the former drug lord was grateful for Castillo’s relative leniency.
“Mr. Zambada accepts full responsibility, and we’re happy with the sentence,” Perez told reporters.