Witness against 'El Chapo' sentenced to 15 years for drug trafficking





Chicago (tca/dpa) - A former top aide to Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman whose testimony in New York helped convict the Sinaloa cartel kingpin was sentenced to 15 years in prison Thursday in federal court in Chicago for playing a key role in trafficking thousands of pounds of cocaine and heroin into the US using speedboats, submarines and jumbo jets.

Vicente Zambada-Niebla, 44, had faced up to life in prison, but US District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo credited him for what prosecutors had called his "unrivaled" cooperation.



 
With credit for the decade he's already served in custody, Zambada-Niebla could be released in less than three years. He'll likely spend the rest of his life in witness protection, however, prosecutors have said.
By any standard, Zambada-Niebla got an enormous break. The sentence was below even the 17-year prison term sought by prosecutors. It was also just one year longer than what Castillo handed to Chicago twins Pedro and Margarito Flores, whose dangerous undercover work for the US Drug Enforcement Administration led to Zambada's cooperation in the first place.
Nicknamed "Vicentillo," Zambada-Niebla was born into the cartel life and rose through the ranks under the tutelage of his father, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, to become one of Guzman's most trusted associates.
Known for his flashy lifestyle and hard partying, Zambada-Niebla was arrested by Mexican authorities in 2009 after the Flores twins - who were among the cartel's biggest drug distributors - made recordings of Zambada-Niebla talking about massive drug shipments, obtaining grenades and explosives, and even attacking government buildings in Mexico in retaliation against law enforcement.
Zambada-Niebla was extradited to Chicago, where he secretly pleaded guilty in 2013 and began cooperating himself.
Security was unusually tight Thursday at the Dirksen US Courthouse with bomb-sniffing dogs patrolling the perimeter of the building and security officials screening everyone who entered, even government employees. Metal detectors were also set up in the hallway outside Castillo's 25th-floor courtroom.
In handing down the sentence, Castillo said he carefully reviewed Zambada-Niebla's testimony against Guzman at the kingpin's trial in New York in January. He had laid out for jurors the inner workings of Guzman's violent organization, including its efforts to pay off corrupt Mexican officials and law enforcement and exact bloody revenge on rivals.
Castillo cited one particular portion of Zambada-Niebla's testimony in which he acknowledged he had ordered people to be murdered "several times."
"The repercussions of the offense are just tremendous," Castillo said. "You know what I'm talking about. Many of the people you knew have died violent deaths. ... It is shameful that these drug wars have continued."
Standing in court dressed in a gray suit and listening through a Spanish interpreter, Zambada-Niebla bowed his head as the judge spoke about his violent past.
Before the sentence was announced, Zambada-Niebla apologized for his role in the cartel, saying he "made some bad decisions" and accepted full responsibility. He also said his "repentance did not come about just yesterday."
"Nor did it come about just today because I am in front of you to receive my sentence," he said in Spanish. "I would like to tell you that this feeling of regret and repentance has been with me for years."
In his remarks, Castillo lamented at length that people who cooperate with the government have been viewed by some as traitors, saying it's often the only way to successfully investigate and prosecute high-level criminals. The judge specifically referred with disdain to Chicago aldermen who recently called a colleague a "rat" for wearing a wire, comparing them to organized crime figures.
Castillo also made a veiled reference to President Donald Trump for making similar comments.
"I won't name who this person is, but someone in Washington said 'flipping' should be outlawed, that someone who cooperates with the Justice Department is a rat," Castillo said. "Are you kidding me?"
"As far as I'm concerned you did not sell out 'El Chapo,'" the judge told Zambada-Niebla. "I think it went the other way around."
The judge also took the nation's long-running war on drugs to task and called for a new approach.
"If there is a so-called drug war, we have lost it. We have lost it," Castillo said. "And it is time for this country to think about doing something different."
Prosecutors said in a recent court filing that the information and testimony provided over the years by Zambada-Niebla disrupted a major pipeline of illegal drugs flowing into the US and helped lead to the convictions of dozens of cartel members - including Guzman himself. Prosecutors described him as a "model" cooperator, sitting for more than 100 debriefings over the years and detailing his firsthand knowledge of the inner workings of the narco world.
Unlike other cartel figures who offered cooperation only at late stages in criminal proceedings, Zambada-Niebla already had tried to leave the family business behind several times before he finally agreed to cooperate, prosecutors said.
"When the defendant stopped, he stopped," Assistant US Attorneys Christopher Hotaling and Erika Csicsila wrote. "He appears to have done so for the right reasons. And he has done everything asked of him by the government, even when his cooperation came at a great personal cost."
Although he'll likely remain in witness protection when he's released, Zambada-Niebla probably will be looking over his shoulder for the rest of his life, prosecutors said.
"(Zambada-Niebla) is one of the most well-known cooperating witnesses in the world, and he and his family will live the rest of their lives in danger of being killed in retribution," prosecutors wrote.
Zambada-Niebla admitted in two plea agreements with prosecutors that he helped oversee Guzman's vast narcotics operation, including the cartel's use of "military-caliber" weapons to enforce their shipments as well as "violence and threats of violence" to rivals, informants and law enforcement.
In January, Zambada-Niebla told jurors during Guzman's trial in New York that he had once ordered the kidnapping, torture and slaying of a rival drug dealer at the behest of his bosses. He also testified that his father often paid as much as 1 million dollars a month to bribe Mexican officials and described how one army general was given a 50,000-dollar monthly stipend by the cartel.
As part of the two plea deals he cut with the government, Zambada-Niebla has agreed not to fight an unprecedented order to forfeit 1.37 billion dollars in ill-gotten proceeds from the cartel.
The bombshell news that Zambada-Niebla was cooperating did not become public until 2014, more than a year after he secretly pleaded guilty in a locked Chicago federal courtroom.
The Flores twins were each sentenced by Castillo to 14 years in prison in 2015. Pedro Flores also testified at Guzman's trial in New York in December.
Zambada-Niebla's father, meanwhile, remains a fugitive, believed to be hiding in the Mexican mountains where the family got its start as ranchers.

 


Friday, May 31st 2019
By Jason Meisner, Chicago Tribune
           


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