Operation Narco Polo spanned the globe, targeting massive
family-run drug trafficking operation
The campaign to dismantle the powerful and violent Sinaloa Cartel has come to San Diego, with 117 people indicted here as part of a globe-spanning investigation — including the cartel’s fugitive leader and his sons — and the seizure of massive amounts of narcotics, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced Friday.
The case started in 2011 as a small-scale investigation into a drug distribution cell in National City and Chula Vista and morphed into a full-scale takedown of the Mexican cartel that touched several states and countries, including China, Great Britain and Colombia.
The cartel, considered the most prolific and far-reaching in the world, is accused of importing large quantities of methamphetamine, the chemicals to manufacture the drug, and cocaine from various countries into Mexico over the past decade. Those and other drugs, along with Mexican-grown marijuana, were then smuggled into the United States through the border at San Diego using nearly every means of transportation possible, from boats to cars to semis to underground tunnels, the main indictment states. Prosecutors say the profits were then laundered via wire transfers, structured bank deposits, cash smuggling and other methods.
U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy made the announcement at a news conference Friday, revealing 14 indictments against the cartels. The charges undoubtedly add to the pressure against organization head Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada Garcia, a farmer turned world’s most wanted drug kingpin. He is already wanted on a Chicago indictment and a number of others that remain sealed, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Braverman. Zambada is charged here along with two of his sons, Ismael “Mayito Gordo” Zambada Imperial, 30, and Ismael “Mayito Flaco” Zambada Sicairos, 32.
His other two sons have also been prosecuted separately. The youngest, Serafin Zambada Ortiz, 24, pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges in San Diego federal court in September and is awaiting sentencing. Another, Vicente Zambada Niebla, is awaiting sentencing in the case out of Chicago, a city long regarded as a major hub for East Coast distribution networks.
The San Diego indictment also targets Ivan “Chapito” Guzman Salazar, 31, the son of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who was the more recognizable co-leader of the cartel. He was captured last February in Mexico.
“These individuals were not just leaders, these were family members and people being groomed to take over all future operations of the cartel. And those are significant leadership voids that aren’t going to easily filled,” William Sherman, special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in San Diego, said at a news conference Friday. As many as 100 law enforcement officers from various local and federal gencies who participated in the investigation crowded in the back of the U.S. Attorney’s conference room as the announcement was made.
While the elder Zambada may be No. 1, he is likely concentrating more on moving frequently to elude capture than running the day-to-day operations of the cartel, Sherman said. As far as who is running those operations, “it’s very fragmented right now,” Sherman added.
Nathan Jones, an assistant professor at Sam Houston State University in Texas who studies traffickers, said one of the biggest take-aways from the indictment is just how far a reach the cartel has.
“It shows how international they are. The problem with the vastness of the Sinaloa cartel suggests there will always be people waiting in the wings (to take over),” Jones said. “… Arrests beget arrests. If they’ve gotten much of Mayo Zambada’s family members, maybe they’re thinking they’re very, very close to Zambada in term of capturing him, as well.”
The results of much of the investigation, dubbed “Operation Narco Polo,” have been trickling through the San Diego federal court system for the past three years in smaller chunks as Sinaloa members and associates have been arrested and charged in 16 other indictments. That includes the prosecution of Jose “El Chino Antrax” Arechiga Gamboa, the reputed head of the cartel’s violent enforcement arm called “Los Antrax.” He was arrested upon disembarking from a flight in the Netherlands and extradited to San Diego in July.
The distribution cell in National City and Chula Vista that was the genesis of the entire probewas broken up with the indictment of its alleged leader, Jose Luis Iglesias, who remains at large.
A large distribution cell run out of Oceanside, thought to provide North county with one-third of its methamphetamine, was also disrupted, officials said.
One of the last remaining pieces of the investigation fell into place in November, with the arrests of “Mayo Gordo” and two other high-ranking leaders in Mexico: Alfonso Limon Sanchez, thought to be one of Zambada’s main sources of cocaine, and Rafael Felix Nunez, one of Arechiga’s chief lieutenant enforcers.
Over the course of the investigation, authorities seized more than 652 kilograms of methamphetamine, 1,343 kilograms of cocaine, 12 tons of marijuana, 53 kilograms of heroin, 5,500 oxycodone pills and $14.4 million in drug proceeds. Arrests and seizures spread from San Diego to Kentucky and South Carolina and as far away as China and the Philippines.
Authorities are also trying to seize several items, including a Cessna Turbo 2010 plane and a Lamborghini Murceilago.
Authorities called it the largest, most significant drug prosecution in San Diego since the takedown of the once-powerful Arellano-Felix drug trafficking organization, or AFO, based in Tijuana. That prosecution, led in part by U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy, created a vacuum in the Tijuana-Mexicali corridor that Sinaloa capitalized on.
Sherman said authorities will continue the investigation
“until we’ve done to the Sinaloa cartel what we’ve done to the AFO. That’s completely dismantle their operations and completely eliminate their ability to operate in the future.”CHARGES
Continuing Criminal Enterprise, in violation of Title 21 U.S.C. §§ 848(a) and (b)
Term of custody including a mandatory minimum 20 years and up to life imprisonment, $2 million fine and 5 years supervised release.
Ismael Zambada-Garcia is charged as the principal administrator, organizer or leader of the enterprise or is one of several such principal administrators, organizers, or leaders; and the violation involved 300 times the quantity of a substance described in subsection 841(b)(1)(B) (100 grams of heroin, 500 grams of cocaine, 100 kilograms of marijuana or 50 grams of Methamphetamine mixture), which is mandatory life imprisonment.
Conspiracy to Distribute Controlled Substances for Purpose of Unlawful Importation, in violation of Title 21 U.S.C. §§ 959, 960 and 963; Term of custody including a mandatory minimum 10 years and up to life imprisonment, $10,000,000 fine and 5 years supervised release.
Conspiracy to Import Controlled Substances, in violation of Title 21 U.S.C. §§ 952, 960 and 963. Term of custody including a mandatory minimum 10 years and up to life imprisonment, $10,000,000 fine and 5 years supervised release.
Conspiracy to Distribute Controlled Substances, in violation of Title 21 U.S.C. §§ 841 and 846
Term of custody including a mandatory minimum 10 years and up to life imprisonment, $10,000,000 fine and 5 years supervised release.
Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering, in violation of Title 18 U.S.C. §§ 1956 (a)(2)(A) and (h)
Term of custody up to 20 years imprisonment, a fine of the greater of $500,000 or twice the value of the monetary instrument or funds involved and 5 years supervised release.
Drug Enforcement Administration
Customs and Border Protection Office of Field Operations
Customs and Border Protection Office of Border Patrol
Internal Revenue Service
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Homeland Security Investigations
United States Attorney’s Office, Northern District of Illinois
Department of Treasury, Office of Foreign Asset Control
Oceanside Police Department
San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department
National City Police Department
Chula Vista Police Department
San Diego Police Department
San Diego County District Attorney’s Office
San Diego Law Enforcement Coordination Center