CHICAGO (AP) – A high-ranking member of Mexico's Sinaloa cartel and son of one of the drug ring's leaders pleaded guilty to drug trafficking a year ago and has been cooperating with authorities, federal prosecutors in Chicago announced Thursday.
Jesus Vicente Zambada Niebla, who described himself as a "trusted lieutenant" of his father, pleaded guilty in April 2013 to one count of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute multiple kilograms of cocaine and heroin between 2005 and 2008, according to a plea agreement unsealed Thursday.
Zambada, 39, was indicted in Chicago and arrested in Mexico City in 2009, and extradited in 2010.
Also named in the indictment are cartel leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán, who was captured in February, and Zambada's father, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada-García. He is considered to be a close ally of Guzmán's in running the cartel and is not in custody.
There is no indication that information Jesus Zambada provided helped lead to Guzmán's capture at a hotel in Mexico.
According to the plea agreement, Zambada told authorities he acted as a surrogate and logistical coordinator for his father, sending and receiving messages about cartel operations and at times coordinating deliveries of narcotics from Central and South America to Mexico and into the United States, including Chicago.
The document also states Zambada was responsible for distributing multiple tons of cocaine, sometimes moving hundreds of kilograms of the drug on a weekly basis, between 2005 and 2008.
Federal authorities have said Guzmán made Chicago a primary distribution hub, relying on the city's extensive train, airport and highway systems to transport narcotics to U.S. points in the Midwest and beyond. The plea agreement describes a multinational operation in which the cartel used "stash houses," or offices, in multiple cities to store drugs, cash and weapons and used violence and threats of violence to law enforcement and rival cartels.
Zambada faces a maximum sentence of life in prison and a maximum fine of $4 million, said Zachary T. Fardon, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. But Fardon said prosecutors could request a shorter prison term if they determine Zambada has sufficiently cooperated.
"This guilty plea is a testament to the tireless determination of the leadership and special agents of DEA's Chicago office to hold accountable those individuals at the highest levels of the drug trafficking cartels who are responsible for flooding Chicago with cocaine and heroin and reaping the profits," Fardon said.
Zambada also agreed to forfeit more than $1.37 billion. A sentencing date has not been set.
One of Zambada's attorneys, Fernando X. Gaxiola said neither he nor the other attorneys would comment.
Zambada typified a new, yuppie-style generation of drug suspects when he was arrested in an upscale Mexico City neighborhood in 2009, and authorities paraded him before TV cameras in a stylish black blazer and dark blue jeans. His suave image was a sharp contrast to a photo of him with moustache and cowboy hat released by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2007.
Mexican authorities arrested Zambada just hours after he supposedly met U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents in a Sheraton Hotel in Mexico City in 2009. He told the agents he wanted to start providing information directly to them rather than through a cartel attorney, according to defense filings.
In the agreement released Thursday, Zambada admitted he paid bribes to Mexican law enforcement on multiple occasions — sometimes at the direction of his father — to further the Sinaloa cartel's business.
Mexico's Foreign Ministry and the country's Interior Department, its lead law enforcement agency, did not immediately to requests for comment on the deal. The Mexican attorney general's office declined comment, saying it was a U.S. case.