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Prosecutors seek 17-year prison term for Mexican cartel leader who testified in New York against ‘El Chapo’

Image provided by the Attorney General of the Republic (PGR) of Mexico shows drug lord Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias "El Chapo," is extradited to the United States on January 19, 2017, and flown from a jail in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, to Long Island MacArthur Airport in Islip, N.Y., to face charges. (PGR/Prensa Internacional/Zuma Press/TNS)

Four months ago, Vicente Zambada-Niebla’s long-awaited testimony in New York helped convict Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman of drug conspiracy charges that could keep the notorious Sinaloa cartel kingpin in prison for life.

Now, nearly a decade after he made the stunning decision to leave the cartel, Zambada-Niebla is in line to reap a substantial reward for his “unrivaled” cooperation with federal investigators.

In a court filing late Monday, federal prosecutors in Chicago asked a judge to sentence Zambada-Niebla, a former top aide to Guzman and the son of the cartel’s current boss, to just 17 years in prison on charges of trafficking thousands of pounds of cocaine and heroin into the U.S. using speedboats, submarines and jumbo jets.

Zambada-Niebla, who faces up to life in prison, could be released in as little as four years — with credit for time he’s already served in custody — if U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo went along with the recommendation by the U.S. attorney’s office.

The sentencing is set for May 30.

In their 23-page filing, prosecutors said the information and testimony provided over the years by Zambada-Niebla disrupted a major pipeline of illegal drugs flowing into the U.S. and helped lead to the convictions of dozens of cartel members — including Guzman himself. Prosecutors described him as a “model” cooperator, sitting for more than 100 debriefings over the years and detailing his firsthand knowledge of the inner workings of the narco world.

Unlike other cartel figures who offered cooperation only at late stages in criminal proceedings, Zambada-Niebla already had tried to leave the family business behind several times before he finally agreed to cooperate in 2009, prosecutors said.

“When the defendant stopped, he stopped,” Assistant U.S. Attorneys Christopher Hotaling and Erika Csicsila wrote. “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.”

Although he’ll continue to be in witness protection when he’s released, Zambada-Niebla probably will be looking over his shoulder for the rest of his life, prosecutors said.

“(Zambada-Niebla) is one of the most well-known cooperating witnesses in the world, and he and his family will live the rest of their lives in danger of being killed in retribution,” prosecutors wrote.

Zambada-Niebla, 44, known as “Mayito” after his father, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, admitted in two plea agreements with prosecutors that he helped oversee Guzman’s vast narcotics operation, including the cartel’s use of “military-caliber” weapons to enforce their shipments as well as “violence and threats of violence” to rivals, informants and law enforcement.

In January, Zambada-Niebla told jurors during Guzman’s trial in New York that he had once ordered the kidnapping, torture and slaying of a rival drug dealer at the behest of his bosses. He also testified that his father often paid as much as $1 million a month to bribe Mexican officials and described how one army general was given a $50,000 monthly stipend by the cartel.

As part of the two plea deals he cut with the government, Zambada-Neibla has agreed not to fight an unprecedented order to forfeit $1.37 billion in ill-gotten proceeds from the cartel.

The bombshell news that Zambada-Niebla was cooperating did not become public until 2014, more than a year after he secretly pleaded guilty in a locked Chicago federal courtroom.

Zambada-Niebla was arrested in 2009 in Mexico City and extradited to Chicago a year later. After his arrival, authorities at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in the Loop refused to let him exercise on the rooftop, citing concern over an assassination attempt or escape by helicopter. Zambada-Niebla was later moved to a Michigan facility, and for years he appeared in court in Chicago only via teleconference.

After his guilty plea in the Chicago case, he was secretly moved to an undisclosed location, authorities said. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons website has no record of his whereabouts.

At the center of the charges against Zambada-Niebla are Pedro and Margarito Flores, twin brothers from Chicago’s West Side who had risen in the ranks of Guzman’s organization before providing key cooperation. In October 2008, Margarito Flores attended a meeting with Zambada-Niebla, Guzman and other cartel leaders at a mountaintop compound in Mexico, the charges allege.

Flores told authorities that Guzman discussed a plot to attack a U.S. or Mexican government or media building in retaliation for the recent arrest of an associate. In that same conversation, Zambada-Niebla turned to Flores and asked him to find somebody who could give him “big, powerful weapons” to help carry out the attack, according to court records.

“We don’t want Middle Eastern or Asian guns, we want big U.S. guns or RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades),” said Zambada-Niebla, according to Flores’ account of the talk in court records. “We don’t need one, we need a lot of them.”

Court records show Flores later secretly recorded a telephone conversation with Zambada-Niebla, telling him the weapons were going to cost twice as much as they had thought.

“That’s fine, just let me know,” Zambada-Niebla replied, according to court records.

The Flores twins were each sentenced by Castillo to 14 years in prison in 2015. Pedro Flores also testified at Guzman’s trial in New York in December.

Zambada-Niebla’s father, meanwhile, remains a fugitive, believed to be hiding in the Mexican mountains where the family got its start as ranchers.

His younger brother, Serafin Zambada, was sentenced last year to 5½ years in federal prison in a separate drug trafficking conspiracy case brought in San Diego, records show.


© 2019 the Chicago Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.