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By Jason Meisner, Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Just over a year ago, the highest-ranking leader of the notorious Sinaloa drug cartel ever to be arrested on U.S. charges stood in a quiet federal courtroom in Chicago for a secret hearing.

Raising his right hand and speaking through a Spanish interpreter, Vincente Zambada Niebla, a top Sinaloa lieutenant known as “Mayito,” admitted that for years he acted as the key coordinator of a billion-dollar cocaine and heroin operation on behalf of a faction of the cartel run by his father.

Then came the real bombshell: he was cooperating with the U.S. government in its case against his former boss, captured Sinaloa loader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

On Thursday, the events of that April 2013 hearing were made public for the first time as prosecutors unsealed Zambada’s 23-page plea agreement.

While the impact of his cooperation remains unclear, it’s a major breakthrough for federal prosecutors and could boost their efforts to extradite Guzman to Chicago to stand trial. He remains jailed on other charges in Mexico following his apprehension in February.

Under federal sentencing guidelines, Zambada faces life in prison, but prosecutors said that if he continues to “provide full and truthful cooperation,” including possible testimony, they will seek an unspecified break in his sentence. As part of the plea deal, Zambada agreed not to fight an order to forfeit a staggering $1.37 billion in ill-gotten proceeds by the cartel.

Zambada, 39, is the son of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who is widely believed to have taken control of the vast Sinaloa enterprise after Guzman’s capture. The younger Zambada was arrested in 2009 in Mexico City on a sweeping indictment charging him, Guzman, his father and other alleged Sinaloa cartel leaders in what is considered the most significant drug case in Chicago history.

Zambada admitted in his plea agreement that between May 2005 and December 2008 he was responsible for many aspects of the Sinaloa cartel’s drug trafficking operations in his role “as a trusted lieutenant for his father.”

According to the plea deal, Zambada coordinated the importation of multi-ton quantities of cocaine from Colombia and Panama into Mexico and facilitated the transportation and storage of the shipments there. The cartel smuggled drugs by jumbo jets, speed boats, submarines, tunnels and other means and used violence and threats against rival cartels and law enforcement in Mexico to facilitate its business, the plea said.

The stunning news of Zambada’s cooperation marked the latest twist in a case that has been filled with intrigue. After Zambada was extradited to Chicago in 2010, authorities at the Metropolitan Correctional Center refused to allow him to exercise in the high-rise’s rooftop yard, citing concern over an assassination attempt or escape by helicopter.

Zambada was later moved to a facility in Michigan and for years he appeared in court in Chicago only via teleconference. After his guilty plea, he was secretly moved to an undisclosed location, authorities said. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons website currently has no record of his whereabouts.

In 2011, his attorneys unsuccessfully tried to get the charges against him thrown out, arguing he’d been granted immunity from prosecution due to his work as an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Prosecutors denied there was any such agreement, and U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo denied the motion in 2012, court records show.

At the center of the indictment are Pedro and Margarito Flores, twin brothers from Chicago’s West Side who had risen in the ranks of Guzman’s organization before providing key cooperation.

In October 2008, Margarito Flores attended a meeting with Zambada, Guzman and other cartel leaders at a mountaintop compound in Mexico, the charges allege. Flores told authorities that Guzman discussed a plot to attack a U.S. or Mexican government or media building in retaliation for the recent arrest of an associate.

In that same conversation, Zambada turned to Flores and asked him to find somebody who could give him “big, powerful weapons” to help carry out the attack, according to court records.

“We don’t want Middle Eastern or Asian guns, we want big U.S. guns or RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades),” said Zambada, according to Flores’ account of the conversation in court records. “We don’t need one, we need a lot of them.”

Court records show Flores later secretly recorded a telephone conversation with Zambada, telling him the weapons were going to cost twice as much as they’d thought. “That’s fine, just let me know,” Zambada replied, according to court records.

Zambada’s father remains a fugitive, believed to be hiding in the Mexican sierra where the family got its start as ranchers. But his younger brother, Serafin Zambada, was arrested in December and charged in a separate drug trafficking conspiracy in San Diego, records show.

Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times/MCT

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