Sinaloa Cartel Offers Legal Challenge To U.S.

April 07, 2011

An accused Mexican drug lord being held on charges in the United States has filed an unusual motion in federal court: He's challenging the U.S. government, saying he had been working with its own federal agents in Mexico.

Jesus Vicente "El Vicentillo" Zambada Niebla is one of the most senior drug trafficking figures in U.S. custody. He's accused of working for the Sinaloa Cartel, a powerful drug trafficking organization in Mexico. In fact, he's the eldest son of one of its leaders. Zambada was arrested in Mexico City in 2009, extradited to Illinois and is accused of trafficking nearly $6 billion in cocaine. He's contracted some of the highest profile criminal defense lawyers in the country, including George Santangelo, a mob lawyer for John Gotti's Gambino Crime Family.

In 2003, the United States indicted Zambada in a massive anti-drug operation that stretched from Colombia to Mexico and into several U.S. cities: Tucson, Los Angeles, Phoenix, New York, Virginia and Rhode Island. Nearly 250 people were arrested in "Operation Trifecta" and it was among the first indictments filed against Zambada's father, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, now one of the top leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel.

Last month, his attorneys filed a simple but explosive one page motion in federal court. They say the FBI, the DEA and various Dept. of Homeland Security agents in Mexico were actually working with Zambada for more than five years.

Peter Henning is a law professor at Wayne State University Law School. He said the public authority assertion made by Zambada's legal team is nearly unheard of in organized crime cases.

"Essentially, this is the type of claim by a defendant that puts the government on trial; saying that the government sponsored illegal activity," Henning said.

Neither the Justice Department nor Zambada's lawyers would comment for this story because of the sensitivity of the case.

But the motion names several DEA and FBI agents who have actively worked in Mexico, claiming they authorized Zambada's activities. One that was named, Eduardo Martinez, was the DEA's attaché in the city of Hermosillo, in Sonora, Mexico until 2008. His name frequently surfaced in federal court warrants as the investigating agent in cross-border drug trafficking cases.

"Given what's going on with the Mexican drug cartels, the last thing the United States can handle is any kind of finding that it in fact sponsored one of the drug cartels," Henning said.

A date has not been set for the trial in Chicago. When that trial concludes, Zambada faces another trial in Washington D.C. for the Operation Trifecta case.