If Prosecutors Get Their Way, Mexican Cartel Figure Could Be Free In 4 Years | WBEZ
Skip to main content


If Prosecutors Get Their Way, Mexican Cartel Figure Could Be Free In 4 Years

The son of a leader of Mexico’s most powerful drug cartel could get out of U.S. prison in about four years if a federal judge in Chicago agrees with a government recommendation at a sentencing hearing Thursday.

Prosecutors are seeking a 17-year sentence for Vicente Zambada Niebla, 44, whom they say helped orchestrate kidnappings, murders, bribery of Mexican officials, and the shipment of tons of narcotics to U.S. locations including Chicago.

Zambada Niebla, who pleaded guilty to drug-trafficking charges, faces 10 years to life in prison and a fine of up to $10 million, according to his plea agreement.

At the sentencing, U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo could credit Zambada Niebla for the prison time since his 2009 arrest in Mexico. Zambada Niebla could also be credited for good behavior while locked up.

Prosecutors say the lenient sentence is fitting because of exceptional cooperation Zambada Niebla has provided U.S. authorities. The cooperation, they say, led to charges against dozens of drug traffickers and helped imprison former Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera.

In their 20-page sentencing memo, prosecutors say Zambada Niebla did not choose life in the cartel. He was born to a high-ranking cartel member, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García.

Zambada Niebla got drawn into the family business when he became a conduit between his father and the cartel after his father went into hiding.

Prosecutors wrote that Zambada Niebla repeatedly tried to “leave the drug trafficking life into which he had been born” and initiated contact with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

When the defendant stopped working for the cartel, prosecutors argue in the memo, “he appears to have done so for the right reasons.”

“He has done everything asked of him by the government, even when his cooperation came at a great personal cost,” the prosecutors wrote.

That cooperation includes meeting with authorities more than 100 times and helping investigators in California, Texas, New York and Mexico, the memo says.

Zambada Niebla also disrupted a “major narcotics trafficking route,” the prosecutors say.

The prosecutors admit that Zambada Niebla’s crimes, particularly his involvement directing violence and murder, is troubling.

But the memo says “the need for general deterrence is mitigated by the legitimate interest in promoting cooperation by those engaged in similar criminal activity.”

Zambada Niebla’s family members “will live the rest of their lives in danger of being killed in retribution,” the prosecutors wrote.

Upon his release, the government has agreed to protect him and to recommend that other federal entities allow him to remain in the United States.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons website provides no clue of Zambada Niebla’s current location.

Chip Mitchell reports out of WBEZ’s West Side studio about policing. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1. Robert Wildeboer is Sr. Editor of Criminal Justice at WBEZ.

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.