By: Bill Conroy
In what might best be described as a drug-war induced flashback to Prohibition-era Chicago, US prosecutors are raising concerns that a high-level Mexican Sinaloa “Cartel” gangster now being held in a downtown jail in the Windy City might be setting the stage for a John Dillinger-like prison break — with a bit of a high-rise James Bond twist.
Attorneys for alleged Sinaloa drug-trafficking organization “kingpin” Jesus Vicente Zambada Niebla, who is now imprisoned in Chicago awaiting trial, filed a brief in federal court earlier this month accusing the US government of violating their client’s Constitutional rights because he has been denied access to outdoor recreation facilities.
“Vicente [Zambada Niebla] is presumed innocent of any offense yet he is held under conditions that violate due process, the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, as well as International human rights and fundamental norms of human decency,” the pleadings allege. “Vicente has been in custody of the Bureau of Prisons since March of 2010, at the Metropolitan [Correctional] Center in Chicago (“MCC”). Although as a pretrial detainee he is presumed innocent and has violated no BOP regulation, he is in the MCC’s Special Housing Unit (SHU). The cells are approximately 10 x 6 feet.”
The MCC is a high-rise prison complex located in Chicago’s downtown and is surrounded by other, taller skyscrapers. The only outdoor exercise facility in the MCC is on the building’s roof.
In pleadings filed in federal court this past Friday in reaction to Zambada Niebla’s demand for outdoor recreation opportunities, US prosecutors argue against providing him with access to the MCC's rooftop, alleging the following:
The Warden [of the MCC] notes, in particular, defendant’s status as an alleged member of a significant criminal organization with attendant risks both to defendant’s security from nearby buildings and that of the institution should defendant’s organization contemplate an escape.
US prosecutors also contend that Zambada Niebla’s attorneys acknowledge that their client may well be targeted for assassination by rival drug organizations — revealing in pleadings that “defense counsel themselves informed the government that [Zambada Neibla] has been the subject of assassination attempts in Mexico since at least the early 1990s.”
“As the Warden [of Chicago’s MCC] notes, ‘It is physically and logistically impossible to protect Mr. Zambada from an assassination attempt if he were allowed on our rooftop,’” US prosecutors argue in court pleadings in the case. “Thus, there can be little dispute that defendant’s conditions of confinement require significant evaluation, both for his own security and for the security of the community as a flight risk and escape candidate.”
Zambada Niebla was arrested in Mexico in March 2009, extradited to the US in February 2010 and is now facing narco-trafficking charges in federal court in Chicago. He claims in pleadings that the US government entered into a pact with the leadership of the Mexican Sinaloa narco-trafficking organization that supposedly provide its chief narcos with immunity in exchange for them providing US authorities with information that could be used to target other narco-trafficking organizations.
The US government denies that Zambada Niebla was granted immunity by any law enforcement agency for the narco-trafficking crimes spelled out in the indictment against him.
However, US prosecutors do confirm in court filings that another high-level Sinaloa “Cartel” member, Mexican attorney Humberto Loya Castro, has worked as a DEA cooperating source for some 10 years (and as recently as this year) while also working for the Sinaloa organization. Loya Castro is described in Zambada’s legal pleadings as “a close confidante of Joaquin Guzman Loera (Chapo),” the supposed leader of the Sinaloa organization.
Loya Castro also acted as the intermediary representing the Sinaloa organization in its quid pro quo arrangement with the US government, Zambada Niebla’s court pleadings allege. US government court filings also confirm that Loya Castro worked to set up direct cooperating-source relationship between DEA agents and Zambada-Niebla.
That effort ended badly for Zambada Niebla, who was arrested by Mexican authorities in March 2009, hours after meeting with DEA agents at a hotel in Mexico City. Zambada Niebla contends the arrest and his subsequent extradition to the US represented a betrayal of the US government’s promise of immunity.
Whether or not US officials actually granted Zambada Niebla immunity goes to the heart of his case. However, it seems clear from the US government’s court filings that Loya Castro’s long-running status as a cooperative source, or informant, for the US government has been known for some time to the leadership of the Sinaloa organization, including Chapo Guzman and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada Garcia (Zambada Niebla’s father. Loya Castro actually met with Zambala Niebla’s attorneys in Mexico City, with the knowledge of Ismael Zambada, sometime in 2010, US government court pleadings confirm. The purpose of that meeting, in part, was to discuss the nature of Loya Castro’s cooperation agreement with the US government as part of an effort to develop a legal strategy for Zambada Niebla’s US criminal case.
Yet, despite Loya Castro’s continuing close relationship with the leadership of the Sinaloa organization (including Chapo Guzman) and his simultaneous role as a US informant, Guzman still remains at large — as would be expected if the narco-trafficker does enjoy US protection.
Also, despite his known role as a US informant and his continued contact with Guzman’s people, Loya Castro has not suffered the fate of other known informants in the narco-trafficking world — an agonizing death.
Ironically, among the jobs performed by Loya Castro for the Sinaloa organization, according to a federal indictment returned against him in the mid-1990s (and later dismissed in he wake of his cooperation with the US government) was to assure, by paying off corrupt Mexican officials, that “key members of the [Sinaloa] organization … did not remain in custody” if they were arrested.
And now, within a week of US prosecutors filing a motion in Zambada Niebla’s case seeking to invoke national security procedures — a sign that intelligence agencies such as he CIA may also have a role in his case — the US government has lodged another set of pleadings, filed Sept. 16, raising concerns about a possible escape plan, or even an assassination attempt, being set in motion with respect to Zambada Niebla.
This might all be written off as conspiracy-theory fiction, if it were not for the fact that Zambada Niebla’s case is playing out in real time in the 21st Century drug war in the heart of Chicago — a city famous for its Prohibition-era gangster sagas and bigger-than-life "public enemies," like John Dillinger.
The warden of the Chicago MCC, Catherine L. Linaweaver, lays it all out in black and white for us, like something right out of a film noir script, in a declaration she filed with the court this past Friday, Sept. 16:
Specifically, my decision to house Mr. Zambada in SHU [the Special Houstin Unit at MCC] is based on the broad publicity his case has received, his access to unlimited outside resources, law enforcement’s portrayal of this case as the largest international drug conspiracy case in Chicago’s history, and the perception he is currently a cooperating witness, which places not only his life in great danger, but also that of staff who are directly supervising him.
Historically, in the BOP [Bureau of Prisons], inmates with unlimited resources have attempted to compromise staff and other inmates, which in documented cases has resulted in significant breaches of security. [Emphasis added.]
… Based on my 21 years of correctional experience, I can honestly say I would not be able to guarantee Mr. Zambada’s safety and that of the public if I were forced to allow Mr. Zambada to recreate on our [the MCC”s] rooftop. Mr. Zambada would make an easy target as he would be the only inmate allowed on the rooftop at the time, and there are numerous high-rise buildings surrounding this facility that neither myself nor fellow law enforcement have any control over. Attacks could easily be staged from those buildings.
Further, the likelihood of an attempted escape by any means is very real. As a member of the Sinaloa Cartel, Mr. Zambada has the resources to effectuate such an escape. In fact, the Sinaloa Cartel funded the escape of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in 2001 form a Mexican jail. [Emphasis added.]
Mr. Guzman is still at large and his estimated net worth, according to Forbes magazine, is over $1 billion. By allowing Mr. Zambada access to our rooftop, I would not only fail to uphold the BOP’s mission to protect society by confining offenders in a safe and appropriately secure environment, but I would also risk the lives of staff, the public and Mr. Zambada himself.