What the Zambada-Niebla Case Tells Us about the Drug War

Last week Vicente Jesus Zambada-Niebla (aka “Mayito”) pled guilty to drug trafficking charges in a US District Court in Chicago. “Mayito” is the son of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada-Garcia, the man who is believed to be the current head of the Sinaloa Cartel, Mexico’s most powerful criminal organization.

El Mayo likely assumed the top spot in the cartel after the recent arrest of former Sinaloa leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman-Loera by Mexican law enforcement with help from the DEA. Some experts had speculated that El Mayo may have betrayed his former boss, but Mayito has agreed to cooperate with US authorities, making it more likely that he – not his father – was the one who “flipped” on the fallen capo.

It is not clear that Mayito gave up information that helped lead to the capture of El Chapo. However, there is significant circumstantial evidence that Mayito may be working with law enforcement authorities in the US against the former kingpin and some of his closest associates.

According to the Mayito’s plea deal, which was recently made public more than a year after being negotiated:

“Defendant agrees he will fully and truthfully cooperate in any matter in which he is called upon to cooperate by a representative of the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois. This cooperation shall include providing complete and truthful information in any investigation and pre-trail preparation and complete and truthful testimony in any criminal, civil, or administrative proceeding. Defendant agrees to the postponement of his sentencing until after the conclusion of his cooperation.”

In point of fact, Mayito himself has claimed that he was a long-time informant for US law enforcement.

A seemingly explosive report from Mexican newspaper El Universal in January of this year alleged that the US government allowed the Sinaloa Cartel to conduct drug trafficking operations without interference from American law enforcement in exchange for information on rival cartels. However, Mayito had accused the US Department of Justice of giving “carte blanche [to the Sinaloa Cartel] to continue to smuggle tons of illicit drugs into Chicago and the rest of the United States” all the way back in 2011.

According to documents filed with the District Court in July 2011, Zambada-Niebla alleged that “the Sinaloa Cartel, through [Mexican attorney Humberto] Loya, was to provide information accumulated…against rival Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations to the United States government” in exchange for the dismissal of drug trafficking charges against Loya – “a close confidante” of El Chapo – and a promise “not to interfere with his drug trafficking activities and those of the Sinaloa Cartel, to not actively prosecute him, [El] Chapo, [Zambada-Niebla’s father El] Mayo, and the leadership of the Sinaloa Cartel, and to not apprehend them.”

According to the allegations made in the court filings, the protection included being “informed by agents of the DEA through Loya that United States government agents and/or Mexican authorities were conducting investigations near the home territories of cartel leaders so that the cartel leaders could take appropriate actions to evade investigators.” The pleadings also allege that the US government agreed not to “share any of the information they had about the Sinaloa Cartel and/or the leadership of the Sinaloa Cartel with the Mexican government in order to better assure that they would not be apprehended and so that their operations would not be interfered with.”

Loya’s case was dismissed in 2008, but Zambada-Niebla alleged that the DEA betrayed their agreement with him by luring the “narco junior” into a meeting at a Mexico City hotel in March 2009 where he provided agents with relevant information. Hours later, he was arrested by Mexican authorities. He was extradited to the US in February 2010.

The Mayito case is particularly interesting in light of Mexican journalist Anabel Hernández’s allegations that the Mexican government “took a side” in the drug war “protecting the Sinaloa Cartel.” The above evidence does not necessarily point to the conclusion that there exists some nefarious conspiracy between the governments of either country and one of the world’s most powerful organized crime groups. Rather, it seems more likely that US and Mexican law enforcement have been using sources within the Sinaloa organization not only to disrupt the operations of the group’s rivals, but also to manipulate the cartel itself.

Take a look at some of the news from the past few weeks:

  • Colombian police, in cooperation with the DEA, arrested Héctor Coronel (alias “Rincón”), the man believed to be the main emissary between El Chapo and the Colombian rebel group known as the FARC.
  • Manuel Alejandro Aponte Gomez (alias “El Bravo”) was found dead at a factory in Sinaloa state. El Bravo was reputedly the head of security for El Chapo.
  • Germán Ceniceros Ibarra, alias “El Tigre,” was killed along with three others in a clash with the Mexican army. El Tigre was a former police officer, but authorities allege that he switched sides to work as a lieutenant of El Chapo.
  • Tomas Arevalo-Renteria, who was linked to both El Mayo’s and El Chapo’s factions of the Sinaloa Cartel, pled guilty to cocaine distribution in Chicago. However, lawyers for both sides as well as the judge stressed that Arevalo-Renteria had not agreed to cooperate against El Chapo.

The timing of the disclosure of Mayito’s plea deal seems interesting, to say the least. Despite the plea having been negotiated over a year ago, only now, with El Chapo in custody and many of his top associates being taken out of commission did the government choose to reveal it to the public.

During his incarceration, Zambada-Niebla wasn’t allowed to exercise on the rooftop sports court. Prison authorities said there was too much risk that he would be picked off by a sniper or stage a helicopter escape. Is it possible that El Chapo somehow found out about Mayito’s cooperation with the authorities and wanted him offed? Was El Mayo planning an operation to spring his son from prison in preparation for assuming leadership of the cartel once El Chapo was arrested?

It’s impossible to know for sure. However, Mayito’s story may shine a light on the logic of how the drug war is prosecuted.

Jason McGahan for the Chicago Reader wrote up a thorough report of the case of Pedro and Margarito Flores, twin brothers from Chicago’s West Side who had risen in the ranks of the Sinaloa organization before deciding to “come in from the cold” and cooperate with the DEA in early 2008. The twins worked with the DEA to provide crucial evidence against Mayito, while being allowed to continue importing and distributing thousands of kilos of cocaine and other drugs supplied by both factions of the Sinaloa Cartel.

According to defense attorney Frank Rubino, who represented Jorge Llamas, a drug courier convicted for a purchase of 20 kilos of cocaine supplied by the Flores brothers:

“The government let [the twins] run wild, let them export out of Mexico [and] import in the United States all the drugs they wanted as long as they provided them information about little street dealers.”

“It’s almost like they were creating crime so that they could solve it.”

“It was kind of like they let the sharks go free so they could catch some goldfish.”

Why would the DEA – whose stated mission is “to enforce the controlled substances laws and regulations of the United States” – allow major drug traffickers to operate unimpeded for years? For one, the twins were helping them rack up indictments and convictions against a good number of lower-level dealers and middlemen. But, perhaps more importantly, they helped lead the feds to Mayito – a man with inside knowledge about the top echelons of the Sinaloa organization.

Maybe they weren’t “let[ting] the sharks go free.” Instead, they may have simply been working their way up the food chain.

Scott Stewart, vice president of analysis at the private intelligence firm Stratfor, told McClatchy that he “can’t see” Mayito “ratting out” his own family, but Gary Hale, former intelligence chief for the Houston office of the DEA said, “The only way to reduce your sentence is to give something to the government.” The evidence now available to the public strongly suggests that the “something” Mayito is giving to the government includes information on El Chapo loyalists who may pose a threat to his father’s control over the cartel.

US officials have all but acknowledged that the War on Drugs is failing and fundamentally unwinnable. But, in the memorable words of Smedley Butler, “war is a racket.” The multi-billion dollar drug war budget supports thousands of law-enforcement and military jobs in the US alone, not to mention those in other countries who receive financial assistance from the US. No matter how badly they continue to fail, the drug warriors always insist that more money and manpower is the solution.

For example, U.S. Coast Guard commandant Admiral Robert Papp recently claimed that his agency misses about 80% of the drugs heading into the United States by sea from South America “because of lack of resources.” His agency’s budget request for next year is nearly $10 billion. That’s more that the amount of most countries’ total annual military expenditures. Yet, in a sense, Papp and his ilk are right. They’re vastly outmatched. The Sinaloa cartel alone brings in roughly $3 billion in annual revenues.

Mayito agreed to forfeit $1.37 billion in assets as part of his plea deal. Much of that money will help fund the continuation of the War on Drugs. Essentially, the feds got to brag about nailing a bunch of gangsters and drug dealers and scored some serious cheddar in the process while doing virtually nothing to put an end to the war racket. Mayito’s father and the organization he leads will likely continue business as usual – at least for the time being.

So, no; US and Mexican authorities aren’t necessarily working hand-in-glove with organized crime to facilitate their operations. They are, however, seizing on any and every opportunity to make it seem as though their efforts are succeeding in bringing the bad guys to justice – even when that involves allowing certain other bad guys to get off easy or even continue to break the law. The case of the Flores twins and Mayito seems like a classic “enemy of my enemy is my friend” situation. The DEA used the Flores brothers to get to Mayito, and they used Mayito to get to El Chapo.

The US is currently seeking extradition of El Chapo, but as George Grayson, a professor and Mexico specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Stuides said, “There is not a snowball’s chance in the Sonoran desert that Chapo will be handed to the US…He might spill the beans on the hundreds, maybe thousands, of military, police and political figures to whom he has given generous bribes over the years.” A former DEA official who spoke to the Guardian said “Even if [El Chapo] gets sentenced to a Mexican prison, eventually he will take over that prison…He will have a laptop, it will turn into a hotel, and he will return to running the cartel from there.”

All of this is a reminder not to take seriously official pronouncements of “landmark achievements,” “historic impacts” and “major victories” when it comes to the drug war. These statements are self-congratulatory and propagandistic. No matter how many high-level gangsters are arrested or convicted, there will always be someone willing to take their place. Arresting crime bosses doesn’t stop crime or the violence that comes with it. It simply makes it appear that a failed strategy is working.

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