A son of the reputed leader of the Sinaloa Cartel testified against Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán in Brooklyn federal court this week for a spectacular two days of testimony that laid bare the inner workings of the one of North America’s most notorious crime organizations.
Following a break for the holidays, prosecutors returned to court Thursday and Friday to question Vicente Zambada Niebla, 43, who gave perhaps the broadest view yet of the cartel’s drug smuggling operations, internecine wars, and ability to corrupt some of the highest levels of the Mexican government.
Zambada is the son of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, 71, a longtime partner of El Chapo who is now — according to his son — the sole leader of the Sinaloa Cartel. According to Guzmán’s defense team, El Mayo has always been the leader, and remains free thanks to his contacts in Mexican police and military forces, while the much more visible El Chapo is left to suffer as a patsy set up as the face of the drug trade.
The narco scion was arrested in Mexico in 2009 and later extradited to the United States, where he has pleaded guilty to several different drug-trafficking indictments — most recently in November — and offered his cooperation in the hopes of avoiding spending the rest of his life in federal lockup.
Zambada, who said he began working for his father at a young age, was essentially raised inside the cartel, and told jurors how he worked on nearly every aspect of the cartel’s operations. He said he often acted as a messenger for his father, mediating conflicts, handing down execution orders, picking up a fugitive El Chapo in a helicopter, and even, once, meeting with the head of the presidential guard for then-president Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon.
There is no end in sight yet for the trial, which began in early November, but Zambada’s testimony functioned as something of a capstone to much of the evidence that the government has presented so far, backing up claims by earlier witnesses, connecting dots between different aspects of the cartel’s activities, and shining light on the close relationship between his father and El Chapo.
While other witnesses were able to give insight into portions of the cartel’s activities, Zambada’s presence at his father’s side gave jurors a first-hand look at nearly every significant smuggling operation and internecine feud of the years he spent as a messenger, mediator and right-hand man to the cartel’s leadership.
According to the younger Zambada, his cartel apprenticeship began in 1996, when he was living in Cancún with Javier Diaz, the Sinaloa lieutenant in charge of the regional “plaza,” or area of control. In January of that year, when Diaz was expecting a shipment of 1,600 kilos of cocaine to arrive near Cancún, he was murdered in Mexico City. Zambada, 21 at the time, stepped into the breach, taking responsibility for the shipment and making sure it landed and got where it needed to go, he told jurors.
After handling that first shipment, Zambada said he stuck close to his father.
“And little by little, I started getting involved in my father’s business,” he said. “By 2001, I was a more important person in the cartel. By 2001 I was another boss.”
According to Zambada, he first met Guzmán — who he referred to almost exclusively as “my compadre Chapo” — in the late 1980s through his father, prior to El Chapo’s first arrest in 1993. Guzmán was in prison for the early days of Zambada’s ascent, but the younger man was there, at a ranch belonging to another cartel ally, when Guzmán and El Mayo renewed their partnership following El Chapo’s escape from prison in 2001.
Rumors have long swirled about how exactly Guzmán managed to break out of the maximum security prison in Jalisco known as Puente Grande, with fingers pointed at the director of the prison and even then-president Vicente Fox as having allowed the escape. But according to Zambada, the plan to liberate Guzmán never included more than a small group of conspirators.
“The more people who know, the worse it’s going to be,” he said.
The most popular story, which has Guzmán escaping in a laundry cart, is the truth, Zambada told jurors, relaying the story that he said Chapo told him following the escape.
When Guzmán was finally free, Zambada said his father was eager to help his old friend get back on his feet, offering him 50 percent of every kilo that passed through El Mayo’s smuggling routes.
“They were partners in drug trafficking,” Zambada told jurors.
Zambada’s closeness to his father put him at the center of some of the most violent feuds that led to the breakup of alliances between the Sinaloa Cartel and the other narco crews that once made up the all-powerful Guadalajara Cartel in the 1980s.
First came the break with the Arellano-Felix crew, also known as the Tijuana Cartel. After El Chapo broke definitively with Tijuana, the two organizations engaged in a vicious tit-for-tat battle that ultimately led to Guzmán’s first arrest in 1993. But in the early 1990s, El Mayo was not yet openly at war with the Arellano-Felíx family.
In one hair-raising anecdote, Zambada told how as a young man, he had gone to Tijuana with Amado Carrillo Fuentes, a close ally of Zambada’s father, to see about brokering a peace between the two cartels. Zambada said he hung out in the kitchen while Carrillo Fuentes spoke with Benjamin Arellano Felíx, one of the leaders. When Carrillo Fuentes was told that the Tijuana Cartel was planning to kill not just El Chapo but El Mayo Zambada as well, he called the younger Zambada into the room.
He was met with a glare from Benjamin Arellano Felíx, who screamed in his face and demanded to know what Zambada was doing there, and promised revenge against Sinaloa, Zambada said.
“You will regret that you didn’t kill us,” Arellano Felíx said, according to Zambada.
When the tense meeting finally came to an end, Zambada and Carrillo Fuentes beat a hasty retreat to the airport, leaving their belongings at their hotel in Tijuana, and flew to safety, Zambada said. Upon his return to Culiacán, his father was bewildered as to why his young son had gone to the meeting at all.
“He scolded me because I was supposed to be in school,” Zambada said.
Dressed in prison scrubs with his arms crossed and discussing his father’s business with a casual, almost helpful tone, the boyishly handsome Zambada, at times wearing stylish square-frame glasses, could have been mistaken for a doctor. But on Friday, as prosecutors wrapped up direct questioning, it became clear just how involved he had been in the darker aspects of the cartel’s operations.
Zambada claimed to have never personally killed anyone, but when asked how many deaths he had ordered, he couldn’t come up with an exact figure. But in at least one particularly gruesome instance, Zambada said he had ordered a member of a rival cartel to be kidnapped, tortured for days, and finally murdered.
The victim, a man nicknamed Caimán, worked for the Beltrán-Leyva family, the last major faction to remain close with El Chapo, which had broken with Sinaloa and allied with the Juarez Cartel in 2008. In order to get intel on the Beltrán-Leyva’s operations in Sinaloa, Zambada said he ordered his henchmen to pick up Caimán and find out what they could from him, by any means necessary.
“I want to say it in a nice way, but they tortured him,” Zambada told jurors. “After having him there for a few days and extracting that information from him, he was murdered.”
When it was the defense team’s turn to cross examine Zambada, El Chapo’s attorney, Eduardo Balarezo, zeroed in on a familiar theme, trying to cast El Mayo as the supreme boss of the Sinaloa Cartel, senior to Guzmán.
Of particular interest to Balarezo — who derisively referred to the elder Zambada as “Papa Mayo” — was Zambada’s claim that his father helped set up El Chapo’s comeback following his escape from prison in 2001, and his offer of half of every kilo of cocaine coming from Colómbia.
“Was Papa Mayo a social worker?” Balarezo asked, during a testy exchange with Zambada.
Zambada, who is still awaiting sentencing for his drug trafficking convictions, is set to take the stand once more when court resumes on Monday.