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High-level Sinaloa Cartel member's guilty plea to vast Chicago-area drug-trafficking operation unsealed

Unsealed court documents reveal his cooperation with the criminal investigation

CHICAGO — A high-level member of the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico pleaded guilty a year ago to participating in a vast narcotics trafficking conspiracy, and he is cooperating with the United States, federal law enforcement officials announced Thursday.

A written plea agreement with Jesus Vicente Zambada-Niebla, 39, was made public April 10 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. He pleaded guilty April 3, 2013 before U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo. Zambada-Niebla was arrested in Mexico in 2009 and extradited to the United States in February 2010.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Chicago led this investigation, joined by the Internal Revenue Service's Criminal Investigation and the Chicago Police Department.

The following agencies also assisted: DEA's National Drug Intelligence Center, the High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI); the U.S. Attorney's offices for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, and for the Central District of Illinois; the Milwaukee Police Department; the Chicago and Peoria offices of the FBI; the Chicago offices of the U.S. Marshals Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF); the Cook County Sheriff's Department; and other state and local law enforcement agencies.

Zambada-Niebla remains in U.S. custody and no sentencing date has been set. Under the plea agreement he faces a maximum sentence of life in prison, a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years, and a maximum fine of $4 million. If the government determines at the time of sentencing that Zambada-Niebla has continued to provide full and truthful cooperation, as required by the plea agreement, the government will move to depart below the anticipated advisory federal sentencing guideline of life imprisonment. In addition, Zambada-Niebla agreed not to contest a forfeiture judgment of more than $1.37 billion.

"This guilty plea is a testament to the tireless determination of the leadership and special agents of DEA's Chicago office to hold accountable those individuals at the highest levels of the drug trafficking cartels who are responsible for flooding Chicago with cocaine and heroin and reaping the profits," said Zachary T. Fardon, U.S. Attorney, Northern District of Illinois. Fardon announced the guilty plea with Jack Riley, special agent-in-charge of DEA's Chicago Field Division.

Zambada-Niebla pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to possess with intent to distribute multiple kilograms of cocaine and heroin between 2005 and 2008. More specifically, the plea agreement describes the distribution of multiple tons of cocaine, often involving hundreds of kilograms at a time on a monthly, if not weekly, basis between 2005 and 2008.

This guilty plea means that there will be no trial for Zambada-Niebla whose case was severed from that of his co-defendants. Among his co-defendants are his father, Ismael Zambada-Garcia, aka "Mayo," and Joaquin Guzman-Loera, aka "Chapo," both alleged leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel. Zambada-Garcia is a fugitive believed to be in Mexico; Guzman-Loera is in Mexican custody after being arrested in February.

Zambada-Niebla admitted that between May 2005 and December 2008 he was a high-level member of the Sinaloa Cartel. In his plea he admitted he was responsible for many aspects of its drug trafficking operations, "both independently and as a trusted lieutenant for his father," for whom he acted as a surrogate and logistical coordinator. Zambada-Niebla also admitted he was aware that his father was among the leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel since the 1970s and their principal livelihood was derived from them selling narcotics in the United States.

Zambada-Niebla admitted that he participated in coordinating the importation of multi-ton quantities of cocaine from Central and South American countries, including Colombia and Panama, into the interior of Mexico, and facilitated transporting and storing these shipments within Mexico. The cartel used various means of transportation, including private aircraft, submarines and other submersible and semi-submersible vessels, container ships, go-fast boats, fishing vessels, buses, rail cars, tractor-trailers and automobiles.

Zambada-Niebla "subsequently assisted in coordinating the delivery of cocaine to wholesale distributors in Mexico, knowing that these distributors would in turn smuggle multi-ton quantities of cocaine, generally in shipments of hundreds of kilograms at a time. On at least one occasion he coordinated distributing multi-kilogram quantities of heroin, from Mexico across the United States border, and then into and throughout the United States, including Chicago," according to the plea agreement.

On most occasions the Sinaloa Cartel supplied cocaine and heroin to wholesalers on consignment. These drugs were also supplied to cooperating co-defendants Pedro and Margarito Flores whom Zambada-Niebla knew distributed multi-ton quantities of cocaine and multi-kilogram quantities of heroin in Chicago; they in turn sent payment to Zambada-Niebla and other cartel leaders. Zambada-Niebla also admitted being aware of, and directly participating in, transporting large quantities of narcotics cash proceeds from the United States to Mexico.

Zambada-Niebla also admitted that he and his father, as well as other members of the Sinaloa Cartel, "were protected by the ubiquitous presence of weapons," and that he had "constant bodyguards who possessed numerous military-caliber weapons." Zambada-Niebla also admitted that he was aware that the cartel used violence and made credible threats of violence to rival cartels and to law enforcement in Mexico to facilitate its business.

This investigation was assisted by agents and analysts of the Special Operations Division (SOD), and attorneys from the Justice Department Criminal Division's Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section. The Criminal Division's Office of International Affairs assisted with extraditing Zambada-Niebla to the United States.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Thomas D. Shakeshaft and Michael J. Ferrara, Northern District of Illinois, are prosecuting this case.