Vicente Zambada Niebla (Sinaloa, 46 years old) liked to draw the most when he was in prison were superheroes. Between the narrow walls of his cell in a federal prison in Chicago (United States), he painted Batman, Spider-Man and Superman as a teenager in his room. It is hard to imagine if the eldest son of one of the founders and supreme leaders of the Sinaloa cartel, Ismael May Zambada, managed to identify more with those characters than with the villains of the film. Vicentillo –a nickname that he has not managed to get rid of despite his appearance as a graduate and a two-day-long beard in the last photo of his arrest-, in addition to being born in the womb of the most powerful cartel in the world and leading the large drug operations , ordered executions of rivals from the age of 22, and at 16 they had already tried to assassinate him for the first time. But what his enemies will say about him is that he was a traitor. There is no worse betrayal in the criminal world of drugs than allying with the DEA (the US agency for combating drug trafficking and consumption).
These days – the US authorities have not specified the date – Vicentillo is free. He has a supervised freedom, on the condition that he cannot travel to Mexico for five years or have any contact with his people from the Sinaloa cartel. But, as the authorities have acknowledged to the US network Univisión, El Mayo’s son, who testified against Joaquín El Chapo Guzmán during the trial against the capo in New York, is no longer in any federal prison. And, as the first-born and great operator of the cartel at the time, he points out as the main heir to one of the most powerful drug trafficking networks in the world.
Vicentillo was arrested in March 2009 in one of his luxurious homes in El Pedregal, south of Mexico City. But from before, as explained by the one who was his lawyer to the Mexican journalist Anabel Hernández in his book The traitor, he had tried to reach an agreement with the United States anti-narcotics agency. The situation in Mexico was unsustainable. The war on drugs had strewn the country with corpses, but especially the bloody battle between the Sinaloa cartel against the Arellano Félix (in Tijuana), the Beltrán Leyva (a Sinaloa split) and the collaborators of Vicente Carrillo Fuentes (in Ciudad Juárez) had complicated business for a criminal organization used to having everything.
Vicente was willing to speak, his objective was to expose the positions of his enemies and, according to his own statements before the Court, his testimony in the following years – he was extradited in 2010 – helped arrest and murder hundreds of collaborators, suppliers, partners and rivals of the Sinaloa cartel, including Arturo Beltrán Leyva and some of the bloodthirsty Zetas. Vicentillo was the captive messenger of the DEA, who served as a first-hand source for the agency between what was happening in the mountains of Sinaloa and what was dispatched in the corridors of US justice. In return, he got a 14-year prison sentence and not the usual life in prison for the number of drug offenses he faced. A sentence that has been reduced for good behavior and cooperation with justice.
The clearest example of that collaboration was the statement against El Chapo Guzmán in January 2019, in which he threw his compadre, a faithful partner of his family, to the lions. During more than five hours of testimony, he proved that he was familiar with both Guzmán’s businesses and his personal entourage. He told jurors stories not only about the drug trafficker’s operations in Mexico, Honduras and Belize, but also about his suppliers, distributors, bodyguards, hitmen, cousins, brothers and sons. He also pointed to his father, who had a budget for bribes of up to a million dollars a month (825,000 euros). An Army general who worked as an official in Mexico’s National Defense Secretariat earned a monthly amount of $ 50,000 (41,000 euros) from the cartel, Zambada recalled. He also related that his father frequently bribed a military man who once worked as a personal bodyguard for former President Vicente Fox.
“Vicente was able to betray everyone, but never his father,” journalist Anabel Hernández points out in an interview with this newspaper. “It was a collaboration that his father was aware of and also took advantage of. It is not the first time that the DEA has used a similar strategy to capture drug traffickers or for its own purposes. It happened with Pablo Escobar years before, ”explains Hernández. Vicente himself related in one of his letters to his lawyer that it was El Chapo who gave him the contact to begin collaborating with the agency in 2008.
The day Vicente Zambada Niebla fell, he was about to go to bed. He had texted his wife and gone to bed. They broke windows and doors and detained him. A few hours earlier, he had driven through the city with a high-end car and his team of escorts. And according to his version of events, narrated in another of his letters, a few hours earlier he had met with two agents of the anti-narcotics agency. “That night they arrested me, they betrayed me and I don’t know why, the truth is I approached by my will, with confidence, I don’t know what happened”, reads one of the writings published The traitor.
At that point, Vicentillo was no longer just the favorite boy of the powerful Mayo Zambada. He was a key figure in Mexican drug trafficking and one of the three who gave orders in the Sinaloa cartel, as he also recognized in court. Since Chapo’s first escape from the Puente Grande prison (Jalisco) in 2001, El Mayo strengthened his relationship with what had been one more collaborator, a subordinate of the bosses of the nineties, and together they built the empire at the cost of bloody battles against your enemies in the north. “By 2001, I was another boss, I was the leader’s son and I coordinated shipments from Central and South America. I handled corruption and handled people for my father throughout the Republic, ”Vicentillo wrote to his lawyer.
After his capture, he created his own reputation as a repentant drug dealer. A man who at the age of 33 had decided to retire from the criminal life and live in peace with his family. An argument that he presented in the different hearings on his case and that earned him privileges in his criminal process. Judge Rubén Castillo, from the hearing that granted him the reduction of the sentence from life imprisonment to 15 years in prison, acknowledged his collaboration with justice and pointed out: “If there is a so-called war on drugs, we have lost it. We have lost it (…) As far as I’m concerned, you didn’t sell El Chapo. I think it was the other way around. Collaborated with the United States of America. That is what happened. And if we don’t have collaboration, the Justice Department just doesn’t win cases. Perhaps we have lost the war on drugs, but we cannot afford to lose the war on crime ”, the magistrate concluded before passing the sentence.
The question these days is what will happen once Vicentillo obtains complete freedom: if he will return to the Sinaloan mountains to take the reins of his father’s criminal business, touched after the conviction of his partner El Chapo, or will he remain firm in his promise of wanting to live in peace. “The great doubt is the human decision. If ambition does not win, if the desire for power does not win. Because the dependency relationship with his father is very strong. I wonder if El Mayo tells him: ‘I need you to be here’, what will he do? ”Hernández wonders. El Mayo remains on the DEA’s Most Wanted list and, unlike most of its associates, has never been detained.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.