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Trapping El Chapo: Chicago's public enemy number one

What the case against Vicente Zambada, son of Sinaloa cartel leader El Mayo, reveals about the federal government's efforts to take down overseas drug suppliers—including the biggest of them all.

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For Latin American drug kingpins, there are few fates as terrible as extradition to the United States.

"They can't bribe their way out, they can't build their own jails, they can't have their girlfriends come in," says Jack Riley, chief of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Chicago. "And they're 1,800 miles away from what they know as life. "

Pablo Escobar, don of the Medellin cartel, had a prison built especially for him in his native Colombia with a Jacuzzi, a bar, and a soccer field. He waged a bloody campaign of bombings and assassinations to thwart his extradition in the early 90s.

El Chapo Guzman had absolute rule over the maximum-security prison in Mexico where he was held for years. He escaped in 2001, after the winds in his case shifted in favor of extradition.

Former DEA director of operations Mike Braun says of the typical extradited drug trafficker: "Once he's convicted [in the U.S.], he knows he is going to be spending the rest of his life in prison. He's not going to have access to a cell phone. He's not going to be able to run his organization from the direct lines of the federal penitentiary anywhere in the United States. That's over with. And that is what they fear most."

Following extradition, a suspect has only two viable options: accept a lengthy mandatory prison sentence (the U.S. attorney's office's conviction rate exceeds 90 percent, and there is no parole in the federal system)—or turn state's witness and save himself.

For a while, Vicente Zambada—the son of legendary Mexican drug kingpin El Mayo Zambada—seemed to have accepted the former fate. He was arrested in Mexico City by Mexican army special forces in 2009 and extradited a year later to Chicago. For the next two years, Zambada was jailed in solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correctional Center on West Van Buren. He lived without access to sunlight or fresh air. All prison personnel below the rank of lieutenant were barred from speaking to him. He was transferred in October 2011 to a jail in Milan, Michigan, where he resided, under similar conditions, until recently. Gradually, the young narco recognizable for his expensive haircut, stylish taste in clothes, and wealthy lifestyle was transformed into a slight, stooped, pallid prisoner with a squint and a nervous twitch.

It initially seemed that part of the reason for keeping Zambada under such tight wraps was simply that his father, El Mayo, was the partner of the Sinaloa cartel kingpin El Chapo Guzman, Chicago's public enemy number one.

Now, in a surprising turn of events, Guzman is behind bars in Mexico—and El Mayo's son has been revealed as a government informant.

By flipping Vicente Zambada, the U.S. has three cartel insiders willing to testify in court. - LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
  • LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images
  • By flipping Vicente Zambada, the U.S. has three cartel insiders willing to testify in court.

Back in 2010, not long after his extradition, Zambada learned that his former Chicago-based colleagues Pedro and Margarito Flores—twin brothers from Little Village who for four years imported two tons of cocaine a month to Chicago, as partners to the cartel—were ready to testify against him. Prosecutors had Zambada's voice on recorded phone calls, inquiring about payment for heroin and naming names of coconspirators. It would seem the privilege of being El Mayo's favorite son had made Zambada feel invincible.

Or maybe his apparent recklessness wasn't so reckless after all. At Zambada's first hearing in federal court in Chicago in March 2011, his attorneys filed a two-page brief alleging that he, his father, and El Chapo Guzman himself had been importing cocaine and heroin into the United States for five years as protected informants for the DEA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Federal prosecutors denied Zambada's claims that he or anyone in the Sinaloa cartel had received immunity from the government. Nevertheless, Zambada revealed enough sensitive details about undercover dealings between the government and the cartel to throw the prosecution on the defensive.

"In exchange for information about rival drug trafficking organizations, the United States government agreed to dismiss the prosecution of the pending case against Mr. Loya-Castro, not to interfere with his drug trafficking activities and those of the Sinaloa Cartel, to not actively prosecute him, Chapo, Mayo, and the leadership of the Sinaloa Cartel, and to not apprehend them."—From a sworn declaration made by the attorney of cartel member Vicente Zambada

The government was forced to hand over signed statements confirming that Zambada met with two senior agents from the DEA in a Sheraton hotel room across the street from the U.S. embassy in Mexico City hours before his capture. The statements established that the meeting was arranged by a Mexican lawyer and senior adviser to the Sinaloa cartel named Humberto Loya Castro, who was a DEA special informant.

While the statements don't verify Zambada's claim that he'd been operating with immunity from the U.S. government, they shed light on both the role of Loya Castro and the relationship between the DEA agents and top cartel members in Mexico—including men who were under indictment in the United States.

In March 2010, attorneys for Zambada traveled to Mexico City to interview Loya Castro in person. In a sworn declaration by one of the attorneys, Loya Castro recalled being told by federal agents that "in exchange for information about rival drug trafficking organizations, the United States government agreed to dismiss the prosecution of the pending case against Mr. Loya-Castro, not to interfere with his drug trafficking activities and those of the Sinaloa Cartel, to not actively prosecute him, Chapo, Mayo, and the leadership of the Sinaloa Cartel, and to not apprehend them. The agents stated that this arrangement had been approved by high-ranking officials and federal prosecutors."

Loya Castro, in the same document, says that during the meeting at the Sheraton Hotel, special agent Manuel Castanon told Zambada "that he had the same deal as Mr. Loya-Castro and that the deal had been approved by the federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C. and high-ranking DEA officials."

In 2012, U.S. District Court judge Ruben Castillo ruled to deny Zambada's defense that he was trafficking drugs with immunity in the years leading up to his capture. The judge, though, would allow testimony from Loya Castro about his role as liaison in meetings between the DEA and leaders of the cartel, including Zambada.

Before the testimony could be given, however, prosecutors struck a plea agreement with Zambada—thereby preventing any disclosures from Loya Castro as well as any further exposure of covert DEA operations in Mexico.

The deal also allowed the government to secure in Zambada an extraordinarily valuable source of information about the structure of the cartel and the identities of its allies and enemies. And to further protect the DEA's investigation of the Sinaloa cartel, Zambada's deal was, until recently, a secret.

The DEA has the largest law-enforcement presence abroad of any federal agency. There are 91 DEA offices outside of the United States, including 11 in Mexico. The DEA acts in an advisory capacity to Mexican military and police, supplying real-time intelligence from electronic surveillance and its network of paid informants.

In Chicago, the DEA works in collaboration with local law enforcement on drug-related crimes connected to overseas suppliers. The DEA's Riley says agents in Chicago and elsewhere in the U.S. must assume a mentality "as if we're on the border."

When he arrived at the Chicago DEA office four years ago, Riley pushed the agency to focus on the drug-trade workers who operate as the "choke point"—the link between local retailers and foreign suppliers. When law enforcement has the choke point in its power, the investigation has the heights of the cartel within reach.

The Flores twins were Chicago's choke point in the Sinaloa cartel, according to Riley. When the twins agreed to cooperate with the DEA, they were able to hand over not only their network of wholesale customers, but suppliers at the cartel's top. "We've got a bigger obligation to take it one step up," Riley says, "to try to eliminate the source."

By flipping the twins, the U.S. secured the evidence it needed to convict Zambada. By flipping Zambada, the U.S. has three cartel insiders willing to testify in court against El Chapo and El Mayo. It is all the more intriguing that one of those witnesses is El Mayo's son.

Mug shots of twin brothers Pedro and Margarito Flores, taken in 2009
  • Mug shots of twin brothers Pedro and Margarito Flores, taken in 2009

In April 2013, Zambada pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute more than five kilos of cocaine and one kilo of heroin—but the U.S. attorney's office's kept the plea a secret for a year. In that year, hearings in the case were scheduled and canceled—and both sides simulated proceedings despite knowing the case to be closed. This was done to cloak the reality that Zambada was cooperating with investigators. He knew Mexican military and government officials on the take from the Sinaloa cartel. Even after four years in jail, he could identify who worked for the cartel and in what capacity.

On February 22, the Mexican navy arrested Sinaloa cartel leader El Chapo Guzman, who surrendered without firing a shot. His customary detail of armed bodyguards was nowhere in the vicinity. After 13 years on the run, the narco of narcos was discovered in a hotel efficiency with his young wife, the former beauty queen Emma Coronel. Their twin daughters and a nanny were in an adjacent room, with a lone bodyguard in the hallway.

It has not been revealed if the U.S. government obtained intelligence from Zambada that helped lead to Guzman's arrest. The U.S. attorney's office would not comment.

The federal prosecutors who negotiated and sealed the plea agreement with Zambada waited until January 29 to request that it eventually be made public. Their original concerns for sealing it, they argued, had "passed or have been remedied." Judge Castillo obliged, and the agreement—revealing that Zambada had been operating as a government witness for the past year—was unsealed on April 10.

The timing of the document's release—less than two months after El Chapo's capture, and just as El Mayo is presumed to be succeeding the fallen kingpin—appears to be designed to further disrupt the Sinaloa cartel. If El Mayo is in fact the Sinaloa cartel's top leader, he now is faced with the fallout from his son's alleged betrayal.

Zambada has waived his rights both to trial and to appeal and has agreed to await his sentence until the terms of his cooperation are complete. In the best-case scenario for him, he will serve less than ten years in prison (he's already served four of those years). Had he not cooperated, he'd likely have received a life sentence. The government has pledged to protect him and his family from retaliation, and to help them attain permanent residence in the United States.

Zambada's name no longer appears in the Federal Bureau of Prisons' database. The U.S. attorney's office in Chicago says that his whereabouts are not being made public.

Four days after El Chapo was apprehended in Mexico, Department of Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson joked during testimony to Congress that the real challenge was not to successfully extradite El Chapo, but to referee between the seven different U.S. judicial districts competing to prosecute him. In those jubilant first few days after the capture, the DEA's Riley was vocal about his desire to see El Chapo brought to Chicago. "I fully intend to have him tried here," Riley said on February 24.

But as recently as last week, the attorney general of Mexico said that the government has no intention of handing over El Chapo to the United States. Mexican authorities have yet to even receive a request, he said. Chicago's DEA office has declined to comment on the matter, and the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., would only e-mail the Reader the following statement: "The decision whether to pursue extradition is the subject of ongoing discussion between the United States and Mexico."

There are indications, however, that federal prosecutors in Chicago are making maneuvers to turn former cartel associates of El Chapo into witnesses against him and others at the top of the cartel. Last week, prosecutors unsealed the identity of a new defendant in the Sinaloa case: Edgar Manuel Valencia Ortega, nicknamed the Fox. Ortega was arrested nearly three months ago, after his flight from Mexico arrived at Las Vegas International Airport. He was transferred to Chicago and held in secret at the Oak Park police precinct, where his lawyers said federal investigators prevailed upon him for days to turn against El Chapo. When Ortega refused, the U.S. moved to prosecute him as a fellow conspirator. Ortega's attorneys called the indictment an act of government retaliation against their client. U.S. District Court judge Matthew Kennelly, however, approved the motion over their objections.

Federal prosecutors in Chicago also tried—and failed—to enlist other Sinaloa cartel members. Alfredo Vasquez Hernandez—a stoic, gray-haired 58-year-old nicknamed Alfredo Compadre—is a lifelong friend of El Chapo's, according to prosecutors. After ABC 7's Chuck Goudie incorrectly reported that Vasquez's February guilty plea amounted to his "turning on" the Sinaloa kingpin (it was in fact a "blind" guilty plea, with no agreement to cooperate), Vasquez withdrew his plea and moved ahead to a trial date in May. A prosecutor called the incident "an unfortunate piece of journalism."

Another Sinaloa defendant, Tomas Arevalo, wanted to make it abundantly clear that his guilty plea did not include any pledge to work with authorities. Arevalo's attorney, Damon Cheronis, emphasized to ABC 7 in March that his client pleaded guilty without a cooperation agreement. Cheronis declined to comment to the Reader, citing a protective order issued on the Sinaloa case by Judge Castillo.

But Ortega and Vasquez and Arevalo are small fish considering that federal law enforcement officials in Chicago already have under their control the three highest-ranking cooperators from the Sinaloa cartel: Vicente Zambada, and Pedro and Margarito Flores. If El Chapo is extradited to the United States, any of the seven cities where he's under indictment could host the narco trial of the century. But former DEA director of operations Braun says Chicago is the sentimental favorite. "I think there is a compelling argument to bring him to justice in Chicago, because I don't believe that any other jurisdiction in the United States has experienced the wrath of Chapo Guzman like Chicago has. And I think it's an important message to send."

El Chapo has never consented to an interview. El Mayo Zambada, however, did speak to a reporter once, four years ago. "Say one day I decide to turn myself in and go before the government's firing squad. My case should be exemplary, a lesson for all," he told Mexican news magazine Proceso. "They shoot me and euphoria erupts. But when all is said and done we come to find that nothing really changed.

"Drug-trafficking is a problem of millions. How do you keep so many under control? As for the bosses, whether locked up, dead, or extradited, their replacements are already out there."

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