Behind the Chicago trial of a Mexican drug kingpin

Vicente Zambada, accused of being one of Mexico’s most powerful drug kingpins, will be tried in Chicago. But does he have his own case against the DEA?

Though the business rested on their family connections to Mexico, the Flores twins had managed to remain independent of any one cartel in the supply chain. Between 2002 and 2008, they had benefited handsomely from a power-sharing agreement in Mexico between the Sinaloa cartel and a clan of four brothers at the head of the Beltrán-Leyva crime family.

After the six-year span of peace that brought prosperity to both cartels, a feud arose that turned to war in May 2008. At the heart of the violence was a dispute over how the spoils from the lucrative Flores operation were to be divided. Amid an atmosphere of mutual distrust, one of the brothers, Alfredo Beltrán-Leyva, was arrested in Mexico. His brothers blamed El Chapo for tipping off authorities before the arrest. Their suspicion led them to declare war against the Sinaloa cartel. The Beltrán-Leyva brothers took their vengeance in the streets of Culiacán, the state capital of Sinaloa, where escalating drug-related violence claimed the lives of 387 people, presumably some innocent, in the bloody summer of 2008.

The ethic of violence-for-violence quickly spun out of control, endangering the lives of the Flores family. The Flores twins chose to cooperate with U.S. law enforcement, according to a 2011 government proffer, though the details of this plea deal have not been made public. By 2008, the twins were relaying sensitive information about their cartel suppliers to federal authorities.

Perhaps the most lurid piece of intel supplied by the Flores brothers involved conversations Margarito Jr. secretly recorded with the heads of the Sinaloa cartel in October 2008, some transcripts of which were released by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago. Margarito Jr. was fitted with a wire during a meeting at a remote mountain compound in Sinaloa with the heads of the cartel: Vicente Zambada-Niebla, then 33; his father, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada-Niebla; and El Chapo.

A close degree of familiarity is evident between the men on the recordings—at one point Vicente is heard affectionately calling Margarito Jr. twin—that offer a rare glimpse into the deliberations of men with a near-mythic reputation for secrecy in their affairs.

“This government is letting the gringos do whatever they want,” El Mayo is heard complaining in one conversation, referring to Mexican President Felipe Calderón and his open-door policy to U.S. law enforcement operating in Mexico.

“They are fucking us everywhere,” El Chapo concurs.

Firepower—how to obtain more of it and what to use it on—is a recurrent theme from the taped excerpts. Vicente is heard asking Margarito Jr. to obtain explosives and military-grade weapons. The men even voice a desire to “send a message” to U.S. authorities by setting off an explosion near a government building or media outlet in Mexico City. No such attack ever took place.

“Twin,” the younger Zambada-Niebla says in one recording, “you know guys coming back from the war. Find somebody who can give you big, powerful weapons, American shit.… We don’t need that small shit. I want to blow up some buildings. We got a lot of grenades, we got a lot of .50 calibers, we’re tired of AKs.” Citing these conversations, prosecutors have expressed confidence in their ability to convict Zambada-Niebla.

Zambada-Niebla, better known in the Mexican press by his nickname, El Vicentillo, which translates roughly to “Pretty Boy Vicente,” was arrested in March 2009 in a predawn raid in Mexico City by an elite team of army troops and federal agents. According to court documents, Zambada-Niebla stands accused as the logistical coordinator of drug shipments for the Sinaloa cartel. On the day El Vicentillo was paraded before television cameras in handcuffs by the Mexican Army, he sported a stylish haircut, a navy blue corduroy blazer, dark jeans and a striped button-down shirt open at the collar. The man whom the Mexican joint chiefs of staff condemned as the leader of death squads in the Sinaloa cartel’s war with the Beltrán-Leyva family looked more like a Latin Grammy nominee than a captured criminal.

Vicente Zambada-Niebla caught the attention of the Latin American press corps last March when he entered a plea of not guilty by reason of a pre-existing immunity agreement with the DEA. The two-pronged defense argued immunity and “public authority,” a specific kind of immunity that claims he acted under the auspices of the U.S. government. Zambada-Niebla asserts that U.S. law enforcement gave him carte blanche to coordinate the cartel’s smuggling operations into Chicago and throughout the U.S. and permitted the remittance of billions of dollars in cash back to Mexico. He further alleges that the U.S. was complicit in arming the Sinaloa cartel with semiautomatic weapons, which it used to wage war on its foes.

Indeed, the circumstances of Zambada-Niebla’s arrest raised eyebrows in Mexico. A mere five hours prior to the raid on his safe house, Zambada-Niebla had met with two special agents from the DEA in an upscale Mexico City hotel located across the street from the U.S. Embassy, according to court documents filed last year by both the prosecution and the defense. Zambada-Niebla attended the DEA meeting with Humberto Loya-Castro, a lawyer and adviser to the Sinaloa cartel. The defense argues that Loya-Castro had agreed to serve as an intermediary in the DEA’s communications with the cartel.

Nevertheless, then-U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who stepped down in June, dismissed Zambada-Niebla’s claims. “Contrary to [the] defendant’s claim, no immunity was conferred upon him… Nor was any immunity conferred upon Loya-Castro,” Fitzgerald declared in documents filed last September with the U.S. District Court in Chicago.

Still, Henning is skeptical of Zambada-Niebla’s chances in court. “It’s not an easy defense to make out,” he says. “It just can’t be his word against what the government says. A lot of times [when] these defenses are raised, they are not raised successfully.”

Other experts find more credibility in the defense’s claims that their drug trafficking enjoyed tacit official approval. Luis Astorga, a research professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, says “the nature of the drug war is such that it is impossible to focus on combating all of the cartels at the same time, so those of us who have been researching this issue have long known that the Sinaloa cartel was not one of the highest priorities of the [Mexican] government. This does indeed contrast with the actual output of its production and its power. This is not at all a convenient case for the U.S. government to try and undoubtedly is quite uncomfortable.”