CHICAGO — A chief federal judge in Chicago took a swipe at President Donald Trump on Thursday and declared the U.S. war on drugs “lost” as he handed a lenient sentence to a one-time cartel lieutenant and a star witness at last year’s New York trial of drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
Chief U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo announced a 15-year prison term for Vicente Zambada for his role as the Sinaloa logistics chief. But with credit for his more than 10 years served since his arrest, the 44-year-old could go free in less than four years. Had he not agreed to spill secrets about the inner workings of the Mexican drug cartel, he’d likely be preparing for the same life sentence his old boss received.
With Zambada standing before him, Castillo said he’d seen “what drugs have done to this country.” But Zambada earned a dramatic cut in prison time, he said, for his far-reaching cooperation, including passing on intelligence that led to charges against more than a 100 cartel operatives.
In a remarkably blunt comment for a federal judge, Castillo added that the way the U.S. has been fighting traffickers wasn’t working.
“If there is a so-called drug war - we have lost it,” he said. “It is time for this country to do something different.” The judge didn’t offer details on possible alternatives.
Zambada, the son of another Sinaloa kingpin and once Guzman’s right-hand man, Ismael Zambada, made a brief statement before Castillo imposed the sentence.
“I made bad decisions, which I accepted and continue to accept responsibility for,” Zambada said in a calm voice. In a final appeal for mercy, he added in reference to his cooperation: “I have proven my repentance with deeds.”
Prosecutors portrayed Zambada as a reluctant cartel operative, saying he tried to withdraw from his father’s trafficking business but he kept getting sucked back in. The judge echoed that, saying sympathetically to Zambada that, “in effect, you were born into the organization.”
Jack Riley is the former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Chicago office who went on to become the No. 2 DEA official in Washington before retiring from the agency. Riley recounts in his recently published memoirs, “Drug Warrior,” how Zambada - after his extradition to Chicago in 2010 - was permitted to call his father in Mexico from an Illinois jail to ask permission to cooperate with U.S. authorities.
“I want you to know you have my authority to begin to cooperate, to get your life back,” Riley quoted the father as saying in the recorded call.
Riley wrote that Zambada’s cooperation was valuable, but that - had Zambada cooperated even sooner - he could have done more. Riley also recalled a face-to-face interview with Zambada in Chicago when Riley asked him: “Could you explain to me how you could justify the violence and murders that you, your father and Chapo are responsible for?”
“We were at war for our families,” Zambada answered through a translator. “We were at war for our territory. Sometimes there are casualties in war.”
Zambada and his family, prosecutors said, will remain targeted for death for the rest of their lives because Zambada turned on the cartel. Security was stepped up in and around the downtown Chicago courthouse for Zambada’s sentencing, with some 20 law enforcement - many with assault rifles - on sidewalks outside.
Also on Thursday, Castillo referred to his own Mexican heritage and alluded to Trump’s advocacy for building a border wall. A massive wall, Castillo said, wouldn’t address the kinds of drug trafficking Zambada engaged in.
“Many in Washington want to build a wall when most of these drugs are coming in in a fashion … where a wall will do nothing about,” he said.
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