CHICAGO — The handsome, square-jawed young man held in isolation in a Chicago jail doesn't deny he was a top lieutenant in his father's Mexican drug cartel but instead has offered a novel defense for his drug-trafficking.
Vicente Zambada's lawyers claim he and other cartel leaders were granted immunity by U.S. agents — and carte blanche to smuggle cocaine over the border — in exchange for intelligence about rival cartels engaged in bloody turf wars in Mexico.
Experts scoff at the claim, which U.S. prosecutors are expected to answer in a filing Friday in federal court. But records filed in support of his proposed defense have offered a peek at the sordid world of Mexico's largest drug syndicate, the Sinaloa cartel, which is run by his father, Ismael Zambada, and Mexico's most wanted man, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
It's a world of brutality, greed and snitching, and federal agents would love to have the younger Zambada pass along more intelligence, especially if it could help bring down his family's operation or lead to the capture of Guzman, a billionaire who escaped from a Mexican prison in a laundry truck in 2001.
"It comes down to whether he would be willing to give up his dad or Guzman," said David Shirk, who heads the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. "Would he be willing to give up his own dad? It seems unlikely."
Zambada, 35, has rarely been seen since his 2009 arrest in Mexico City, after which Mexican authorities paraded him before TV cameras in a stylish black blazer and dark blue jeans. His suave image was a sharp contrast to a photo of him with moustache and cowboy hat released by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2007.
He may have upgraded his look after he assumed control over cartel logistics in 2008 and, federal officials say, received authority to order assassinations. He was arrested and extradited to Chicago a year later to face trafficking conspiracy charges punishable by up to life in prison.Interactive: Mexico's drug-trafficking landscape (on this page)
The Sinaloa cartel is one of Mexico's most powerful. Named after the Pacific coast state of the same name, it controls trafficking on the border with California and is battling rival cartels in an effort to expand east along the 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border.
Accustomed to luxury in Mexico, Zambada has been held in a 10-by-6 foot cell in Chicago, is often served meals that have gone cold and hasn't been outside in 18 months, his attorneys say. U.S. District Court Judge Ruben Castillo told the government Thursday to file a response to those complaints.
Armed marshals led the shackled Zambada into Thursday's hearing. He appeared at-ease, even smiling and winking at woman sitting on a spectators' bench.
'Bunch of malarkey'
Castillo will decide later whether Zambada's provocative immunity claim has any credibility, but many experts said they were skeptical.
"Personally, I think it is a bunch of malarkey," said Scott Stewart, who analyzes Mexico's cartels for the Texas-based Stratfor global intelligence company. "I mean, what the defense is saying is that a huge amount of cocaine was allowed to pass into the United States unimpeded. Why would you even have sought his extradition if there was this potential backlash?"
U.S. prosecutors briefly discounted Zambada's claim in one filing, but more details are expected in Friday's documents. A spokesman for U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald would not comment on the allegation. Neither would a Washington spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, whose agents Zambada claims to have dealt with in Mexico.
However, clandestine intelligence deals are not uncommon, and conspiracy theories abound in Mexico about the government going easy on one cartel to keep the others under control.
The Sinaloa cartel's adept use of information has helped it gain power as some others waned, trafficking experts say. The government has had only limited success battling it since President Felipe Calderon declared war on the cartels five years ago. Since then, more than 35,000 Mexicans have died — mostly in cartel-on-cartel violence.
Zambada's lawyers say the U.S. government believed turning a blind eye to the Sinaloa kingpins was an "an acceptable price to pay, because the principal objective was the destruction and dismantling of rival cartels."
To bolster their claim, they point to the way the U.S. and Colombia fought that country's once mighty cartels.
The Medellin and Cali cartels were laid low in the 1990s, in part by a divide-and-conquer strategy in which U.S.-backed authorities brought down the former before going after the latter, trafficking experts say. In some cases, they relied on informants.
The demise of Colombia's cartels and U.S. successes in disrupting smuggling routes in the Caribbean contributed to the spectacular rise in influence and wealth of the Mexican cartels. Today, about 90 percent of U.S.-bound cocaine goes through Mexico, according to the DEA.
Mexican authorities arrested Zambada just hours after he supposedly met DEA agents in a Sheraton Hotel in Mexico City. He told the agents he wanted to start providing information directly to them rather than through a cartel attorney, according to the defense filings.
Experts, though, say the kind of collusion described by Zambada's attorneys goes far beyond what U.S. authorities were likely to have contemplated.
"I know of no case where immunity like this has been granted," said George Grayson, author of the book, "Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State?"
However, Zambada and other Sinaloa leaders may have given information to U.S. or Mexican agents even if the immunity claim isn't true, Stewart and other experts say.
"The Sinaloa cartel has been better than any other cartel in Mexico at framing rival cartels — leaking information that gets their enemies in trouble," Shirk said.
Jorge Chabat, an international relations professor in Mexico City, said it's also possible that Sinaloa continued to thrive simply because Mexican authorities decided to focus first on more violent cartels, including a notorious gang in northeastern Mexico known as the Zetas.
"By comparison, the Sinaloas aren't exactly the Sisters of Charity — but they're less violent," he said. "Sinaloa is a little more rational about its violence."
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