Former Lieutenant Testifies in ‘El Chapo’ Criminal Trial

Authorities escort Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, center, from a plane to a waiting caravan of SUVs at Long Island MacArthur Airport, in Ronkonkoma, N.Y., on Jan. 19, 2017. (Photo via U.S. law enforcement)

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – Star government witness Vicente Zambada Niebla, 43, testified this week against his reported former associate, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. 

Vicente Zambada is the son of DEA fugitive and suspected Sinaloa Cartel leader Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada. The younger Zambada was his father’s right-hand man in the trafficking empire — as defense attorney Eduardo Balarezo put it, “trusted lieutenant of Papa Mayo” — for almost his entire life. 

Vicente, also called “Vicentillo,” is not the only Zambada to take the stand against Guzman – his uncle and El Mayo’s brother, Jesus “El Rey” Zambada Garcia, testified in November. 

Vicente Zambada told jurors that Mayo and Guzman presided together over the group, alongside several other partners. The defense has long argued El Mayo actually ruled the Sinaloa Cartel and their client was merely a scapegoat. Guzman faces 17 counts of drug trafficking, conspiracy and money laundering.

That the younger Zambada is on the witness stand testifying against Guzman, as well as his own father, is at once extraordinary, curious and controversial. The question remains whom, exactly, he betrayed by sitting there. 

One theory popular outside the courtroom is that El Mayo betrayed Guzman to seize control of the cartel himself. If this theory is correct, the younger Zambada’s testimony this week could simply be part of Mayo’s plan. 

On cross-examination, Balarezo dug in on the enigma of El Mayo’s freedom, seemingly attempting to undermine El Vicentillo’s credibility as a cooperator. 

“You knew about the drugs, you knew about the money, you knew where the bones were buried, right?” asked Balarezo. “Did the government ask you, ‘Where’s your Papa Mayo?’” 

Zambada said they had, and that he’d turned over “everything I knew” – coordinates, airstrips, hideouts. 

“So all that,” Balarezo said, “and they’re still looking for him.” 

“I gave them what they asked for,” Zambada replied through an interpreter. “If he hasn’t been arrested, it’s not my fault.”

The younger Zambada also somewhat vaguely described a curious 2007 event in which he met with Guzman and his father to talk about the possibility of Vicente communicating with the DEA. Guzman apparently had a contact there and offered El Vicentillo a proposal, he said.

They knew the younger Zambada, then in his early 30s, had been wanting to get out of the cartel, retire from the drug trafficking business “and go about my own life.”

“They [the DEA] could only help me … not Chapo or my dad,” Zambada told the court Friday, because “I was more wanted at the time.”

So – apparently with the consent of El Mayo and Guzman – Vicente Zambada said he provided information to authorities on some key enemies of the Sinaloa Cartel, in what he admitted was an effort in part to get the U.S. or Mexican governments to fight their battles for them. He also wanted to get rid of the cases pending against him in the U.S., he testified. 

A year-long investigation by Mexican newspaper El Universal indicated he was a DEA informant.

Zambada was arrested in Mexico City in 2009 and took a few guilty pleas in the U.S. before one in Chicago was unsealed mere days before Guzman’s trial opened on Nov. 13, 2018. 

Much of Zambada’s examination by government attorney Amanda Liskamm was repetition of anecdotes and statements made by previous witnesses. Other aspects, especially his dealings with the DEA, were shrouded in a fog of sidebars and prohibited avenues of questioning.

U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan has kept the trial tightly focused on Guzman, meaning the jury and the public have missed out on hearing some specifics about Mexican and U.S. government corruption. 

Vicente Zambada’s sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 27.

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