Borderland Beat republished from UT~San Diego
The 24-year-old son of Mexico’s most wanted drug kingpin pleaded guilty in San Diego federal court Friday to a drug distribution conspiracy, admitting to taking a managerial role in the Sinaloa cartel’s trafficking monopoly.
Serafin Zambada Ortiz, a U.S. citizen born in San Diego, pleaded guilty to conspiring to buy more than 100 kilograms of cocaine and more than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana in Sinaloa, then import it into the United States. He also agreed to forfeit $250,000, said to be proceeds of the drug business.
Prosecutors dropped charges involving methamphetamine distribution.
The son of Sinaloa cartel leader Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada could face a maximum sentence of life.
Three female family members attended the hearing in his support, and some cried in the downtown courtroom. Zambada’s defense attorney declined to make a statement after the hearing.
Heavy security surrounded the hearing, with extra deputy marshals in the courtroom and a metal detector at the door.
The guilty plea signifies another blow against the Sinaloa cartel, which has risen in prominence in Mexico to become what U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy called “one of the world’s most violent and prolific drug trafficking organizations.”
The group has mostly taken over the Tijuana corridor since arrests and San Diego-based prosecutions have minimized the once-powerful Arellano-Felix organization. Duffy was one of the lead prosecutors during that effort.
“Tijuana is one of the jewels of the border,” said Nathan Jones, an assistant professor at Sam Houston State University in Texas who studies traffickers. “Sinaloa had designs on it for a long time, and now that they are dominant players in the region, it’s their turn to get more law enforcement attention.”
Perhaps the biggest shake up occurred in February, with the arrest of the cartel’s long sought-after leader, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. He is being held on charges in Mexico, but is also named in indictments in San Diego, Arizona and Illinois. Still at large is Zambada’s father, who has typically operated behind the scenes as the organization’s co-leader.
Young Zambada was arrested in November on a federal warrant in Nogales, Ariz., after crossing through the pedestrian lane at the U.S.-Mexico border there. He was with his wife.
Zambada, who was born in San Diego and attended high school in Phoenix, was on his way to Phoenix for an appointment with U.S. immigration authorities to arrange legal status for his wife when he was arrested, said Saji Vettiyil, his attorney. Zambada showed border inspectors his U.S. passport.
William Sherman, the special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in San Diego, describes young Zambada as a “major player” in the Sinaloa cartel whose loss to the organization “will be felt at all levels.”
The arrest was part of a two-year DEA investigation into dozens of suspects. Authorities linked about 50 drug seizures both inside and outside the U.S. and tapped some 125 phones, court records show.
At least eight other ongoing prosecutions in San Diego are linked to Zambada’s case, according to court records. Some arrests were made following July grand jury indictments on drug trafficking and money laundering charges.
Besides Zambada, another high-profile defendant is Jose Arechiga Gamboa, otherwise known as “El Chino Antrax,” who was arrested in December after disembarking from a flight in the Netherlands. Authorities say he rose through the ranks of the cartel, from the leader of a group of violent enforcers to a high-ranking member. They say he attempted to avoid arrest by undergoing plastic surgery and trying to remove his fingerprints.
Arechiga’s defense attorney attended Zambada’s hearing Friday and took notes.
It was the same investigation that resulted in last year's arrest of Jose Rodrigo Arechiga, known as "Chino Antrax," who authorities suspect is a Sinaloa cartel enforcer.
Arechiga, who was extradited to face charges in San Diego, is accused by U.S. authorities of providing personal security to Ismael Zambada and his family and killing Zambada family rivals.
“DEA and its law enforcement partners will continue to attack this dangerous drug trafficking organization from the bottom up and the top down until the organization is dismantled,” Sherman said in a statement.
Vettiyil said the elder Zambada gave no legal advice to his son and did not pay his attorney bills. He said Serafin Zambada's clean criminal history will allow him to argue for a lighter sentence than the 10-year minimum.
"He was a young man, he has a family, he has a university degree, and his involvement was quite limited compared to other people," Vettiyil said.