Sentencing in Sinaloa Cartel’s Chicago Connection

The sentencing last month in a case related to the Sinaloa Cartel’s Chicago connection provided further fodder for the increasingly plausible conspiracy theory that the DEA protected Mexico’s biggest criminal machine. Federal Judge Ruben Castillo sentenced Alfredo Vázquez Hernández, who had been extradited after serving a sentence in Mexico, to 22 years in prison for shipping 276 kilograms of cocaine to Chicago hidden in railway cars. Federal prosecutors said Vazquez was a top-ranking operative of the Sinaloa syndicate, who arranged airplanes, submarines, trains and trucks to move cocaine from Colombia to Chicago via Mexico. Vazquez was characterized as a lifelong friend of the cartel’s now-imprisoned top kingpin “Shorty” Guzmán. Judge Castillo said this hadn’t been proved, but stated:  “Given the amount, it’s nonsensical to think this was this defendant’s inaugural voyage into cocaine trafficking.”

According to Reuters, the case was based on secret grand jury testimony from two informants, twin brothers Pedro and Margarito Flores, who pleaded guilty in August to distributing Sinaloa coke. The brothers, now in protective custody, entered guilty pleas in exchange for possible reduced sentences of 10 to 16 years each. The brothers admitted to storing cocaine, heroin and marijuana in a Chicago warehouse for distribution to 30 wholesale customers in New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Columbus, Ohio, Detroit and Los Angeles. They testified that Vázquez boasted of coordinating cocaine flights of tons each. The Flores twins said their Chicago distribution operation lasted from about 1998 to 2008, and that they began doing business with Vázquez in 2006. At his request, they set up a company to import furniture by rail, to hide the cocaine shipments.

But this case was only a footnote to that against Jesus Vicente Zambada Niebla AKA “El Mayito”—the son of Shorty’s top lieutenant Ismael Zambada AKA “El Mayo”—and the real mastermind of the Chicago connection. El Mayito is now himself cooperating with US authorities, having pleaded guilty in April 2013 to a cocaine trafficking conspiracy charge. Before cutting the deal, Mayito had argued that he for years had a special arrangement with the DEA that granted him “carte blanche” to bring cocaine into the United States.

Earlier this year, Mexico’s daily El Universal ran a feature, “The DEA’s Secret War in Mexico,” revealing evidence in Mayito’s case that backs up his claim. Then-Justice Department prosecutor Patrick Hearn told the court that, according to DEA special agent Steve Fraga, Sinaloa Cartel attorney Loya Castro “provided information leading to a 23-ton cocaine seizure, other seizures related to” various drug trafficking organizations. He further claimed that “El Mayo” Zambada wanted his son to cooperate with the US. The younger Zambada’s lawyer told the court that in the late 1990s, Castro struck a deal with US agents, under which the Sinaloa leadership would provide information about rival trafficking organization. In exchange, the US would refrain from interfering with Sinaloa trafficking operations, or prosecuting Sinaloa leaders. El Universal, citing court documents, reports that DEA agents met with Castro and other Sinaloa jefes more than fifty times between 2000 and 2008.

El Mayito argued that he was “immune from arrest or prosecution” because he actively provided information to US federal agents. He also made the explosive claim that Operation Fast and Furious—the controversial BATF caper that let trafficked guns “walk” to the Sinaloa Cartel—was part of a deal to arm the cartel in exchange for information on its rivals.

Another report in El Universal cited testimony in the Mexican case against Shorty that US Border Patrol agents facilitated arms smuggling at the Nogales crossing in Arizona to cartel traffickers on the other side.

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