After a year of purgatory inside a Mexican federal prison, the son of “the most powerful drug trafficker” will be joining his two locked-up brothers on American soil.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs this week approved a judge’s recommendation to extradite 32-year-old so-called narco junior Ismael Zambada Imperial, aka “El Mayito Gordo,” to San Diego, where he will stand trial for allegedly trafficking illicit imports of “wholesale” heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine flooding the United States. El Mayito’s brothers Vicente Zambada Niebla, 40, and Serafin Zambada Ortiz, 24, are also incarcerated and both took plea deals.
Their father, Sinaloa capo and the alleged cartel leader Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, remains a wanted man. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Chief Jack Riley has called “El Mayo” more powerful than escaped con kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
The Mexican navy initially nabbed the wanted cartel big’s son last November. He was stashed in an anonymous compound with 13-foot fortified walls in the town of El Ranchito de los Burgos, near the city of Culiacan, before being moved to a federal prison in Jalisco, Mexico.
Officials from the DEA, Marshals, and Justice Departments refused to discuss details about El Mayito’s extradition. One official said nothing’s coming in terms of information “until he’s on the ground here.” Messages left with the Mexican Embassy were not immediately returned.
Authorities have already confiscated more than 652 kilograms of methamphetamine, 1,343 kilograms of cocaine, 12.2 tons of marijuana, 53 kilograms of heroin, 5,500 oxycodone pills, and $14.1 million in narcotics proceeds from the cartel.
And the fact that El Mayito Gordo is being tried in San Diego isn’t random.
“San Diego is at the forefront of narco-dollar money laundering, with couriers using bulk cash smuggling, structured bank deposits, and high-end luxury vehicles and airplanes to move their illicit drug proceeds,” said IRS Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge Erick Martinez back in January.
According to the federal indictment filed on July 25, 2014, El Mayito Gordo (the name means “Good Guy”) became a big player in the family business, and since 2005 began climbing the cartel ranks as a dependable drug mover. He gained a rep as a good earner.
Mayito managed to transport through the border “ton qualities” of marijuana and “multi-kilogram quantities” of cocaine, which the court papers say fanned out around the country, where the proceeds were laundered and then returned to Mexico.
Daddy El Mayo touched on his close-knit family in a 2010 interview, saying his wife, five mistresses, 15 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild all live in the mountains “like me.”
“The mountain is my home, my family, my protection, my land, water I drink,” he said. When probed about his eldest son, Vicente “El Vicentillo” Zambada Niebla, who in 2009 was cuffed by Mexican authorities and ultimately extradited to Chicago to face felony charges, El Mayo initially praised him as his first born. “He is my son, the first of five, I call him ‘miho.’ He is also my compadre,” the proud dad said. Then he refused to expand when prompted about his son’s snitching. “Today I will not speak of [Vicente],” he said.
His son’s case was delayed and delayed because the heir had thought his cooperation with DEA agents would buy him immunity. It didn’t. And there wasn’t any quid pro quo. In fact, in a story published in El Universal, DEA agent Manuael Castanon suggested that DEA agents strike up meetings with fugitives across the border all the time to glean intelligence. But unlike in the U.S., the fugitive walks out of the office a free man. “In San Diego I can arrest the fugitive. In Mexico I cannot,” he said.
Zambada Niebla took a plea and copped to being a “trusted lieutenant” of his father and a “surrogate logistical coordinator” in the family business, which utilized “private aircraft, submarines and other submersible and semi-submersible vessels, container ships, go-fast boats, fishing vessels, buses, rail cars, tractor-trailers, and automobiles,” according to last year’s unsealed plea agreement.
The eldest heir to the Sinaloa throne will serve at least 10 years in prison (with the possibility of that becoming a life sentence) and forfeited just under $1.3 billion in cocaine cash to Uncle Sam. Besides losing his billions, Zambada Niebla turned snitch. He agreed to “fully and truthfully cooperate in any matter in which he is called upon to cooperate,” according to the plea agreement.
Meanwhile, the youngest son, Serafin, aka “Sera,” got caught in 2013 at the Nogales, Arizona, border on an outstanding warrant for his part in trying to buy 1,000 kilograms of marijuana and 100 kilograms of coke back in Mexico. He turned over $250,000 of his reserves and was hit with a 10 years-to-life sentence.
But as El Mayo’s sons keep getting locked up, the father claims he is terrified of such a fate. While he “feels panic behind bars” and admits he’s “always afraid,” he is not sure he could avoid it, however. “I don’t know if I have the [balls] to kill myself,” the outlaw said. “I want to think yes, I would kill myself.”
The fact that the U.S. has three of El Mayo’s sons in U.S. custody makes the Sinaloa cartel weaker. “He was delegating to his sons,” Nathan Jones, an assistant professor at Sam Houston State University, told The Daily Beast. Jones has been a fervent student of the drug war, and his book Mexican Drug Networks and the State Reaction comes out next March.
Jones says it’s not clear whether the Sinaloa cartel will remain as strong with more and more of its top echelon being extradited to the States. But the busts are significant. “This is a very significant blow to the organization,” he said. “I think [El Mayo’s] sons are really important. The advantage of being his son carries a lot of weight in the underworld.
“And while everybody talks about El Chapo, people talk about El Mayo, too. And you’re talking about El Mayo’s men in operational control being caught,” Jones said.
Given the fact that the cartels have long had government officials and cops in their pockets, the push to hold them accountable in the U.S. versus Mexico is a trend that could inevitably save lives and prevent an abortion of justice.
“I think there might be a problem on the Mexican side with prosecutions because in certain areas corruption and coercion run rampant,” said Jordan Paust, a professor at the Law Center at the University of Houston. “They are getting people out of the country and getting the prosecutions in other countries to avoid problems where the judges, lawyers, and policemen are killed.”
Paust has been a proponent of international tribunals to handle cases of international drug trafficking. Back in the 1990s, there was a push for a “regional international criminal tribunal in the Americas,” he said. It was actually going to be in Jamaica and would have cut costs. “I tell my students the tribunals mean more jobs for you,” he said. “As far as prosecutors and defense attorneys are concerned, I am in favor of the tribunals as an alternative.”
Whether a move toward tribunals will be floated is unknown. But there is a steady number of high-profile drug lords coming to America. And for good reason.
“I think there’s going to be a push to hand more of these high-profile people over [to U.S. authorities] so they don’t make the same mistake twice, where they had El Chapo Guzmán and they are overconfident that they can hold onto him, and he escapes again after two times,” Jones said, referring to the kingpin’s storied escape from a Mexican prison back in July.
“It’s the greatest humiliation that the Mexican government experienced.”