Top drug cartel leader pleads guilty, cooperating with feds

The highest-ranking leader of the notorious Sinaloa drug cartel ever to be arrested on U.S. charges secretly pleaded guilty in Chicago more than a year ago to conspiring to distribute tons of cocaine and heroin and is cooperating with law enforcement, federal officials announced today.

Vincente Zambada-Niebla, 38, is a close associate of captured Sinaloa loader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and is the son of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who is believed to have taken control of the vast enterprise after Guzman’s arrest in February.

Prosecutors said Zambada-Niebla, known as “Mayito” or “Little Mayo,” was for years the logistical coordinator of a billion-dollar cocaine and heroin operation, overseeing the delivery of thousands of kilograms of cocaine and heroin into the U.S.

He pleaded guilty in U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo’s courtroom on April 3, 2013. Prosecutors in Chicago today unsealed his 23-page plea agreement.

Under federal sentencing guidelines, Zambada-Niebla faces life in prison, but prosecutors said that if he continues to “provide full and truthful cooperation” they will ask for an unspecified break in his sentence. As part of the plea deal, Zambada-Niebla agreed not to fight an order to forfeit in excess of a staggering $1.37 billion. A sentencing date has not been set.

In a written statement, U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon praised the work of federal agents “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.”

Zambada-Niebla was arrested in 2009 in Mexico City when he was indicted with Guzman, his father and other alleged Sinaloa cartel leaders in what was considered the most significant drug case in Chicago history. The indictment accused the cartel of using jumbo jets, submarines, tunnels, and other means to smuggle drugs into the U.S.

Pedro and Margarito Flores, twin brothers from Chicago’s West Side who had risen in the ranks of Guzman’s organization, provided key cooperation against Zambada-Niebla, leading to the seizure of millions of dollars worth of drugs between 2005 and 2009, according to court records.

Margarito Flores attended a meeting in 2008 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.

Later in the 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.

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

Zambada-Niebla admitted in his plea agreement that between May 2005 and December 2008, he was a high-level member of the Sinaloa Cartel and was responsible for many aspects of its drug trafficking operations, “both independently and as a trusted lieutenant for his father.”

According to the plea deal, Zambada-Niebla coordinated the importation of multi-ton quantities of cocaine from Colombia and Panama into Mexico and facilitated the transportation and storage of these shipments within Mexico.

Zambada-Niebla also admitted that he was aware that the cartel used violence and made credible threats of violence to rival cartels and to law enforcement in Mexico to facilitate its business.

Guzman remains in custody in Mexico, where he is facing additional charges. Zambada-Niebla’s father remains a fugitive.

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