A once-powerful Mexican drug cartel figure who pleaded guilty to federal charges after cooperating for years with U.S. prosecutors was sentenced Thursday in Chicago to 15 years in prison, with credit for more than a decade in custody since his 2009 arrest in Mexico.
Vicente Zambada Niebla, 44, could be released in just a few years with additional credit for good behavior behind bars after he admitted he helped orchestrate kidnappings, murders, bribery of Mexican officials and the shipment of tons of narcotics to U.S. locations, including Chicago.
At the sentencing, Zambada Niebla wore a gray suit before U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo and apologized for his role in the Sinaloa cartel.
“I made some bad decisions for which I continue to accept full responsibility and truly regret,” Zambada Niebla said through a Spanish interpreter. “This repentance did not come about just yesterday, nor did it come about just today because I’m in front of you and about to receive my sentence.”
“I have proven my repentance with deeds and acts,” Zambada Niebla said, referring to the cooperation with prosecutors, which led to charges against dozens of drug traffickers and helped imprison the cartel’s former leader, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera.
Castillo condemned Zambada Niebla’s participation in the cartel and pointed to his admission under oath that he had relayed orders for “several” killings.
The judge also said too many drug prosecutions focus on relatively low-level offenders.
“I've often complained that we need to go higher up,” Castillo said. “You are one of the highest people that I've ever sentenced since I've been on the bench.”
But Castillo pointed out that Zambada Niebla comes from a family long involved in Mexico’s illegal drug trade: “It’s not like you went out and decided to join this organization. In effect, you were born into this organization that existed.”
Castillo also praised Zambada Niebla for assisting with U.S. efforts to prosecute top drug traffickers, including his own father, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García.
“You made the right decision in cooperating,” Castillo said. “I find your cooperation extraordinary."
As Castillo praised Zambada Niebla for cooperating, he condemned some Chicago aldermen who recently criticized a colleague for wearing a wire as part of a federal investigation involving Ald. Ed Burke.
“They talk about the person who ratted,” Castillo said, likening the aldermen to “organized crime figures.”
Zambada Niebla, who pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges in November, faced 10 years to life in prison and a fine of up to $10 million, according to his plea agreement.
Prosecutors sought a 17-year prison sentence. The defense asked for 12 years.
Castillo said he would not order a fine in light of Zambada Niebla’s agreement to forfeit a staggering $1.37 billion in cartel proceeds.
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. Federal Bureau of Prisons website provides no clue of Zambada Niebla’s current location.