The son of Sinaloa Cartel boss Ismael Zambada has pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges in a United States federal court.
Vicente Zambada, a former logistics chief for the cartel, said in a plea agreement unsealed yesterday that he will cooperate with prosecutors in the hope that in exchange he will receive a reduced sentence and protection for his family from cartel retribution.
The cooperation agreement means that the 43-year-old Zambada will likely be a witness at the trial of former Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán that is set to start next week.
Zambada’s appearance in a Chicago court Thursday was the first time that he has faced a judge in person since his extradition to the United States in 2010.
Since then, the trafficker known by the nickname El Vicentillo has been held in a maximum-security prison in Michigan and has only appeared before a judge via video link.
In the 19-page plea deal, Zambada accepts responsibility for drug trafficking charges that were originally filed in Washington D.C. in 2002 but transferred to Chicago in August this year.
He also agreed not to contest the seizure of US $1.3 billion in illicit gains.
Starting in the 1990s, Zambada admitted to overseeing the importation of cocaine from Colombia and its shipment across the Mexico-United States border at Ciudad Juárez and then on to cities including Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.
From 2005, Zambada confessed, he managed a sophisticated operation involving the use of planes, trains, trucks, speed boats and even submarines to transport drugs from Colombia to Mexico and then into the United States.
The Sinaloa Cartel sent Boeing 747 cargo planes filled with clothes to South America supposedly as part of a humanitarian mission only to return to Mexico with large quantities of cocaine, according to U.S. authorities.
The judge set sentencing for February 27 but that date is likely to be delayed as Zambada continues to cooperate with prosecutors.
He could face life imprisonment but prosecutors will recommend a sentence not exceeding 10 years if he cooperates as promised.
Zambada’s family could also be allowed to stay permanently in the United States, according to the plea agreement.
The former logistics mastermind’s potential value to prosecutors at the Guzmán trial is considerable given that he would know details about the Sinaloa Cartel’s inner workings that few other people would know.
The plea agreement signed by Zambada doesn’t explicitly say he will testify at El Chapo’s trial in New York. However, he has agreed to providing testimony “in any matter” and “in any investigation.”
Twelve New Yorkers were chosen this week to sit on the jury to pass judgement on Mexico’s most notorious drug lord.
Guzmán, 61, has pleaded not guilty to 17 counts of drug trafficking, conspiracy, firearms offenses and money laundering.
Opening statements in the trial are scheduled for Tuesday. A federal judge ruled this week that Guzmán cannot enjoy a hug with his wife before his trial begins.
While Guzmán and Vicente Zambada face justice in the United States, the latter’s father, better known as El Mayo, continues to bring in massive profits for the Sinaloa Cartel.
Ismael Zambada García, a 70-year-old former poppy-field worker and long-time partner of El Chapo, has evaded law enforcement authorities during a trafficking career spanning half a century.
The United States State Department is offering a US $5-million reward for information that leads to his capture.