On the night that Jesús Vicente Zambada Niebla strode into the lobby of the Sheraton Maria Isabel Hotel in Mexico City, the price on his head was $5 million.
The handsome 33-year-old, nicknamed El Vicentillo (Pretty Boy Vicente), was a notorious drug capo. He was also the only son of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García, the No. 2 boss of Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa cartel, the biggest supplier of illegal narcotics to the United States. For years, the younger Zambada had been on the run from the federales as well as from U.S. authorities. But that night in March 2009, he strolled into the hotel for an unlikely midnight tryst with—of all people—two agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The Cocaine Trail to Chicago
According to court documents, the meeting had been arranged by Humberto Loya Castro, a consigliere to the cartel (and, since 2005, a DEA informant). Zambada didn’t know it, but he was walking into a trap. His fate had been sealed eight months earlier, when two drug wholesalers from Chicago—the Flores twins, Margarito Jr. and Pedro—flipped on their Sinaloa employers. That led authorities on both sides of the border to make a series of arrests all the way up the cartel chain of command to Zambada.
Hours after Zambada left the hotel, just before daybreak, he and his entourage of five heavily armed bodyguards were loading their vehicles in the driveway of Zambada’s safe house in the leafy neighborhood of walled estates called Lomas de Pedregal. Sixty regulars from the Mexican special forces surrounded them. Caught off-guard and outnumbered, the men surrendered their arsenal of AR-15 semiautomatic rifles and .38 Super pistols. Pretty Boy Vicente was taken into custody without firing a shot.
Never heard of the Sinaloa cartel? If you’re in law enforcement, you certainly can’t say the same. Last February, the Chicago Crime Commission branded Sinaloa’s leader, the elusive and fearsome Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, Public Enemy No. 1—a distinction last held by Al Capone.
“What Al Capone was to beer and whiskey, Guzmán is to narcotics,” Art Bilek, the commission’s executive vice president, said at the time. Except, Bilek added, Guzmán “is clearly more dangerous than Al Capone was at his height.” (Zambada is plenty dangerous, too: Prosecutors say he commanded logistics and security for the cartel, including assassinations. He is suspected in a number of slayings, including the murders of government officials.)
The cartel’s scope is staggering. About half of the estimated $65 billion worth of illegal cocaine, heroin, and other narcotics that Americans buy each year enters the United States via Mexico, according to law enforcement experts (though the drugs often originate in South or Central America). More than half of that is believed to be supplied by Sinaloa. Drug enforcement experts estimate, conservatively, that the cartel’s annual revenues exceed $3 billion: more than those of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Group.