Ex-Cartel Honcho Flips on El Chapo—and His Own Father

Vicente Zambada explains how Sinaloa cartel operated, from submarines to bribes
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 4, 2019 8:07 AM CST
He Knew the Cartel's Secrets. Now He's Testifying
This undated photo provided by the United States Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York shows Vicente Zambada.   (United States Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York via AP)

The trial of the drug lord known as El Chapo is getting to the good stuff. A once-key member of Joaquin Guzman's Sinaloa cartel took the stand in federal court in Brooklyn on Thursday and will be back on Friday. The testimony of 43-year-old Vicente Zambada Niebla has been highly anticipated because he just happens to be the son of Guzman's partner at the top of the cartel, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada García. And as he demonstrated in court on Thursday, the younger Zambada was privy to the nitty-gritty of how the cartel operated, from drug smuggling to bribes. Details:

  • Betrayal: The New York Times sees Zambada's testimony as an "astonishing betrayal," not only of Guzman and the cartel, but of his own father, who remains at large. In court Thursday, he called Guzman "mi compadre," or "my friend," per CNN. He began working for the cartel as a teenager. "I started realizing how everything was done," he told jurors. "And little by little, I started getting involved in my father's business."
  • Submarines: Zambada explained how the cartel moved cocaine from South America to Mexico in submarines, reports the Wall Street Journal. Speed boats would meet the subs, and the drugs would then be moved into safe houses on the mainland. He recalled a submarine ferrying five tons of cocaine on one occasion.

  • Other methods: The cartel shipped cocaine to Chicago in trains carrying meat, said Zambada. They also recruited people in El Paso, Texas, to drive to Mexico repeatedly and bring back drugs hidden in secret compartments in their vehicles.
  • The bribes: The cartel paid $1 million a month in bribes to police and government officials, according to Zambada. That included $50,000 a month to a government defense official, reports the Daily News. Zambada said a guard for former Mexican President Vicente Fox also was on the payroll and tipped them off to raids.
  • Famous escape: Zambada seemed to confirm a legendary part of Guzman's lore, his 2001 escape from a prison in Mexico in a laundry cart. He recalls Guzman telling him how he hid under blankets and sheets in the cart, with help from a corrupt guard, and marked their progress by counting the clicks of each security door opening.
  • Big meeting: Zambada described a meeting about a decade ago in which officials from the state oil company Pemex asked the cartel to supply 100 tons of cocaine to be transported in a company-owned oil tanker, reports the AP. Zambada does not know if the plan ever came to fruition, because he was arrested soon afterward.
  • His own fate: Zambada pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy charges after being extradited to the US and remains in federal custody. He faces life in prison, but hopes his cooperation will lead to a reduced sentence, reports CNN. His lawyers have claimed he was working as a double agent with the DEA while he smuggled drugs for the cartel.
(Read more El Chapo stories.)

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