Likely El Chapo trial witness pleads guilty in Chicago

A former top lieutenant to Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and likely witness at the Mexican drug lord's New York trial has pleaded guilty to trafficking conspiracy in Chicago, saying in a plea agreement unsealed Friday that he will cooperate with prosecutors in hopes of a reduced sentence and protection from cartel retribution for his family.

The 19-page plea deal , posted in Chicago federal court, says 43-year-old Vicente Zambada pleaded guilty to charges in a case originally filed in Washington, D.C., in 2002 and then transferred to Chicago this August. Zambada also agreed not to contest the government's seizure of $1.3 billion in ill-gotten assets in a related case brought in Chicago in 2009.

Jury selection for Guzman's trial in New York wrapped up this week, with opening statements set for Tuesday.

Zambada would know details about the inner workings of Guzman's Sinaloa Cartel few others would know. Zambada oversaw cartel logistics until his 2009 arrest and had authority to order hits; by his early 20s, Zambada, the son of another Sinaloa kingpin, Ismael Zambada, was already handling illegal shipments of drugs bound for Chicago, Los Angeles and other U.S. cities, filings say.

In an indication of how valuable his testimony could be and how dangerous taking the witness stand would be for him and his family, prosecutors said in the plea deal that they'll recommend the U.S. government provide security to him and his family. That could include permitting them to stay permanently in the United States, the agreement says.

Security has been a concern since his extradition to Chicago in 2010 . He wasn't allowed on a rooftop recreational area at his city jail from fear a sniper could shoot him from an adjacent skyscraper.

Zambada appeared briefly in a Chicago courtroom Thursday to change his plea to guilty. The hearing wasn't listed on court schedules, though a Chicago Tribune reporter attended and described Zambada as appearing relaxed as he answered a judge's questions through an interpreter.

His agreement doesn't say explicitly he will testify in New York. But it does say he agrees to cooperate in providing testimony "in any matter" and "in any investigation." He faces anywhere from 10 years to life in prison, but prosecutors would recommend a sentence at the low range of guidelines if Zambada cooperates as promised.

The judge set a Feb. 27 sentencing date, though that would likely be delayed as Zambada continues to aid prosecutors.

The U.S. attorney's office in Chicago declined any comment.

Zambada pleaded guilty under a similar arrangement in the Chicago case in 2013, in what was the first indication he'd turned on his former Sinaloa cohorts.

The Chicago indictment, which names Guzman as a co-defendant, says the cartel used speed boats and submarines to transport drugs. The cartel sent 747-cargo planes full of clothes on supposed humanitarian missions to South America, returning with 13 tons of cocaine.


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