Image: Vicente Zambada Niebla
Daniel Aguilar  /  Reuters
Suspected Mexican drug trafficker Vicente Zambada Niebla is presented to the media in Mexico City on Thursday. He is the son of notorious drug lord Ismael Zambada and allegedly served as head of operations and security for the Sinaloa cartel.
updated 3/19/2009 3:46:08 PM ET 2009-03-19T19:46:08

Mexico's military has captured the security and operations chief of the nation's most powerful drug cartel, officials said Thursday, delivering another punishing blow only weeks after U.S. officials rounded up hundreds of cartel members north of the border.

Vicente Zambada allegedly became a top Sinaloa cartel leader last year, with control over logistics and authority to order assassinations of government authorities and rivals. He was arrested before dawn Wednesday at a home in an elite Mexico City neighborhood, said Gen. Luis Arturo Oliver, the Defense Department's deputy chief of operations.

Zambada's father, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, also is considered a top leader of the Sinaloa cartel and is among Mexico's most-wanted suspects.

Last month, President Barack Obama's administration announced that investigators had arrested 755 Sinaloa cartel members in cities and towns all over the United States.

The U.S. is seeking Zambada's extradition on a 2003 trafficking indictment, but he will have to face charges in Mexico before the request can be considered.

"This significantly affects the organization's ability to operate and distribute drugs," said Ricardo Cabrera, who runs the terrorism and drug trafficking unit in Mexico's federal attorney general's office.

Payoffs alleged
The Sinaloa cartel has been accused of paying off top Mexican security officials, including the country's former drug czar, Noe Ramirez, who is accused of accepting $450,000 to tip cartel leaders to police operations. Ramirez has denied the charges.

Gen. Oliver said police and military personnel were closely watching the exclusive Lomas del Pedregal neighborhood after receiving complaints about armed men in cars. They managed to surprise Zambada and his five body guards and arrest them without a shot, seizing three AR-15 semiautomatic assault rifles, three pistols, three cars, and several thousand dollars in cash.

In this case, at least, Zambada apparently didn't know what was coming.

Ismael Zambada's brother, Jesus "The King" Zambada, was arrested last year in Mexico City and accused of helping smuggle cocaine and methamphetamines through the Mexico City airport. He also is under investigation for taking part in the killing of top police officials in Mexico City.

The other two known Sinaloa cartel leaders at large are Joaquin Guzman Loera, known more commonly as 'El Chapo Guzman,' and Ignacio Coronel Villarreal, or "Nacho Coronel."

Mexican officials issued a $5 million reward for Guzman after he escaped from a prison in 2001 hidden in a laundry truck. Forbes Magazine also recently ranked Guzman as one of the world's richest men, with an estimated $1 billion fortune. Guzman came in at No. 701 on the magazine's ranking — between a Swiss oil-trading tycoon and an American chemical heir.

A U.S. indictment accuses both Vicente and Ismael Zambada of using planes, boats trucks and cars to move nearly $50 million worth of cocaine from Colombia to New York, New Jersey, Chicago and California between August 2001 and June 2002.

Vicente Zambada apparently rose through cartel ranks after supervising the unloading of cocaine from ships off the Mexican coast and verifying quantities coming from Colombia, according to the U.S. indictment.

Cartels on defensive
Mexico's drug cartels are increasingly on the defensive as the U.S. and Mexico mount a cross-border crackdown.

After taking office on Dec. 1, 2006, President Felipe Calderon immediately sent thousands of soldiers and federal police to drug strongholds across Mexico in an attempt to bring warring gangs under control.

Cartels, already fighting each other for territory and drug routes into the U.S., responded with unprecedented violence, killing some 8,000 people. About 10 percent of those victims are police or soldiers. The rest are believed to be linked to the drug trade, and only a fraction have been civilians caught in the crossfire.

Now the violence is spilling over into the U.S., where drug-related kidnappings and killings are rising. Obama plans to come to Mexico City next month to discuss with Calderon how the two countries can work together better to confront the problems.

More on: Mexico

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