A top Sinaloa Cartel lieutenant, accused of directing the assassinations of rivals as well as Mexican and U.S. government officials as part of a raging drug war that has claimed more than 8,000 lives, will be arraigned Tuesday in federal court in Chicago on charges of smuggling multiple tons of cocaine and heroin into this country.
Jesus Vicente Zambada-Niebla, whose father has been identified as a Sinaloa Cartel boss and has been named as being among Mexicos most powerful drug kingpins, was brought to Chicago on Friday and described by U.S. authorities as “one of the most significant Mexican drug defendants” ever extradited to the United States.
Zambada-Niebla is accused of being part of a drug operation that smuggled more than 200 metric tons of cocaine, along with large quantities of heroin, into the United States between 1990 and December 2008, some of which was exchanged for weapons to use against government targets in the U.S. and Mexico. The indictment said the illicit drugs netted more than $5.8 billion in cash proceeds.
“We praise Mexico for continuing to extradite Mexican cartel leaders to the United States,” said Michele M. Leonhart, acting administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). “The Sinaloa Cartel has smuggled multi-ton quantities of cocaine and heroin into our country for decades, using intimidation and murder to build and protect their criminal empire.”
Zambada-Niebla, 34, spent 11 months in custody in Mexico before he was turned over to U.S. authorities and will be arraigned before U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo. He was turned over to U.S. authorities at the international bridge connecting Matamoros, Mexico, to Brownsville, Texas, according to the Mexican attorney general’s office.
He has been described by U.S. authorities as the Sinaloa Cartel’s security and operations chief, one who not only ordered assassinations but controlled logistics — responsible with seven other high-ranking associates and their sons for coordinating the shipment of cocaine from Colombia and Panama to the interior of Mexico.
Then, the indictment said, they smuggled hundreds of kilograms of cocaine at a time, as well as multi-kilograms of heroin, across the U.S. border and throughout the United States.
According to the indictment, Zambada-Niebla sought weapons in the United States and discussed using violence against American and Mexican government buildings in retaliation for each country’s enforcement of its narcotics laws and to protect their narcotics-trafficking activities.
At one point, according to the indictment, Zambada-Niebla discussed with his associates a plan to use violence in “The Smoke,” a coded term for Mexico City, in an area in which narcotics trafficking was controlled by the Gulf Cartel “so the public and governmental blame for such an act of violence would fall” on his rivals.
Drug-related violence along the U.S.-Mexico border has surged over the past several years, the result of intense competition between the Gulf Cartel, led by Osiel Cardenas-Guillen, and the Sinaloa Cartel, also known as “the Federation.” The Sinaloa bosses have been identified as Joaquin “el Chapo” Guzman Loera and Zambada-Niebla’s father, Ismael “el Mayo” Zambada-Garcia.
More than 8,000 people, including about 800 Mexican police officers and soldiers, have been killed in the resulting drug war.
The war between the cartels has overwhelmed the U.S.-Mexico border and spread an escalating turf fight into the United States. Near-daily shootouts and ambushes along the southwestern border pose a serious threat, according to separate government reports, which predicted a rise in “deadly force” against law enforcement officers, first responders and U.S. border-area residents.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the investigative arm of the Homeland Security Department, said in a recent report that border gangs were becoming increasingly ruthless, targeting rivals, along with federal, state and local police. ICE said border violence has risen dramatically over the past three years as part of “an unprecedented surge.”
The Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center and the High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Investigative Support Center also predicted further spillage of drug-gang violence deep into the United States. They said the cartels were expected to hire members of deadly street gangs in the U.S. to carry out further acts of violence, and that many cartel members and corrupt police officials in Mexico — overwhelmed by violence in many border towns — have begun relocating their relatives in the United States.
The Justice Department has reported that Mexican drug cartels represent the “largest threat to both citizens and law enforcement agencies in this country and now have gang members in nearly 200 U.S. cities.” The 200 jurisdictions include Washington; Baltimore, Frederick and Greenbelt in Maryland; and Arlington and Galax in Virginia.
The bodies of some of those killed have been dumped in schoolyards and at other public venues. Many of the victims were ambushed. Others were killed with grenades and with AK-47 assault rifles. Still others have been decapitated.
Cartel members also use grenade launchers, body armor and Kevlar helmets.
Both the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels seek to control long-established drug-smuggling corridors into this country. U.S. and Mexican authorities have estimated that more than $14 billion in illicit narcotics pass annually through the Laredo, Texas, area alone. The Federation was founded in the early 1970s by smugglers based in Mexico’s Sinaloa state and is considered the most powerful drug threat along the border.
Zambada-Niebla was among three dozen suspected drug smugglers indicted in Chicago in August as part of what the DEA described as one of the largest international narcotics conspiracy cases ever prosecuted. He also is under indictment in a separate cocaine-smuggling case pending in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
According to the Chicago indictment, Zambada-Niebla conspired with Guzman Loera, Arturo Beltran-Leyva and his father to coordinate narcotics trafficking for the Sinaloa Cartel with one another, with other Sinaloa factions and with other affiliated cartels between 2005 and 2008 as part of the Federation.
Beltran-Leyva, known as “the Boss of Bosses,” was killed during a two-hour gunfight with authorities in Mexico in December.
“Through close and sustained cooperation with our partners in Mexico, we are bringing alleged cartel leaders to justice — on both sides of the border,” said Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer, who heads the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.
“In 2009, Mexico extradited the most defendants ever to the United States in one year, representing our shared commitment and responsibility for disrupting and dismantling these violent and corrosive drug-trafficking organizations,” he said.
The D.C. indictment said Zambada-Niebla and his co-defendants conspired to import and distribute multi-ton quantities of Colombian cocaine worth more than $50 million on ships to Mexico and then on planes, trucks and cars to move it across the U.S.-Mexico border.
He is expected to be tried on the D.C. charges after the Chicago case.