Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
The pallets marked as frozen sea cucumbers, a delicacy in some Asian restaurants, crossed easily from Mexico into the U.S. by truck at a border crossing between Tijuana and San Diego.
After all, frozen seafood moves relatively quickly through U.S. Customs and Border Protection at ports of entry along the Southwestern border. Each port has a limited budget to pay for “spoilage” during unsuccessful drug searches, so without specific information or indicators of drugs in the load of seafood, the loads get processed rapidly.
Once in San Diego, the seafood was flown to Buffalo, in upstate New York, where the pallets – which were actually loaded with heroin, cocaine and fentanyl – were broken open and distributed to drug dealers in western New York.
The money from the drug sales was then laundered through a series of companies, sent to bank accounts in California and then south of the border.
It was a classic Sinaloa Cartel operation, hiding the drugs in plain sight, pushing them out to consumers willing to pay hard cash, and then using legal fronts and banks to cover the money trail.
It was run by Jose Ruben Gil, known within the organization as the “Mayor of Mexico.”
The operation involved people throughout the drug trafficking organization who were tightly aligned with the Sinaloa Cartel, not only in smuggling the drugs, but also in arranging for the money to get back to Mexico. The volume and value of the drugs involved is considered to be too high to “front” to independent operators.
Investigators from the Internal Revenue Service and other agencies claim that in one year, Gil’s operation sent $20 million from corporate bank accounts in the Buffalo area to banks in California. The money was then sent into Mexico.
The “Mayor of Mexico” eventually was taken down.
During the Drug Enforcement Administration investigation, agents across the country seized 52 kilograms of cocaine, 17 kilograms of heroin and 8 kilograms of fentanyl – worth millions of dollars on the street – but Gil’s operation continued right up until his arrest in August in Buffalo, N.Y. He and others are now awaiting trial.
Gil ran the type of drug operation that traces back to the highest echelons of the Sinaloa Cartel, according to federal law enforcement officials involved in the case.
His was a sophisticated model from start to finish.
Law enforcement officials in the U.S. say the six major Mexican cartels are reaping billions in profits every year.
Sinaloa Cartel thrives
The arrest of a player like Gil isn’t much more than a hiccup to an operation like the Sinaloa Cartel.
The most recent arrest and extradition to the United States of one of the world’s best-known drug lords, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, was a much bigger threat to the cartel’s drug operations. In fact, there were expectations of a major fight for control of the Sinaloa Cartel.
Although a few members have turned up dead, there hasn’t been a major bloodletting, yet.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration believes the cartel, which actually is a federation of several groups, has always been run by a board of directors with a first among equals or chairman like Guzmán.
The two players with the most influence in the cartel today are Ismael “Mayo” Zambada Garcia, 68, and Dámaso “El Licenciado” López Nuñez, 50.
Zambada has been around since the 1970s, when the Guadalajara Cartel was formed. For a long time, he and his sons ran operations in the Mexican state of Sonora and controlled the “Plaza” in Nogales and other towns south of the border with Arizona. (Note: “Plaza” is a term used to refer to a border drug corridor.)
He became an important figure in a group called The Federation, formed by Amado Carrillo Fuentes in the 1990s, and since 2000 has been a capo in the Sinaloa Cartel.
He has a reputation for being a savvy infighter, not afraid of shedding blood, but someone who picks his fights carefully. Zambada played a significant role in eliminating the Tijuana Cartel as a major player on the border.
López Nuñez came onto the scene in 2001.
He studied law at the Universidad de Occidente and became a police officer at the Sinaloa Attorney General’s Office, according to El Universal newspaper.
López Nuñez eventually got a job at the federal prison in Puente Grande where El Chapo was serving time after his 1993 arrest and allegedly helped him escape in 2001.
He resigned and was not jailed in connection with the escape.
He was indicted in U.S. District Court in Virginia on drug trafficking and money laundering charges with other members of the Sinaloa Cartel but has never been arrested in Mexico.
Reports suggest Zambada is ready to name his sons as his successors.
But the most capable son is in a U.S. federal prison, and the others, according to DEA observers, don’t have the capacity to maintain power the way their father has over the course of decades.
The same assessment is made of Guzmán’s sons. All of them will have some role in the cartel, but how large remains to be seen.
Guzmán is godfather to López’s son, and López is close to another imprisoned Sinaloa capo, Inés Coronel Barreras, who is the father of Guzmán’s third wife.
While those signs point to López taking over a larger role in the cartel, nothing in the Mexican drug world is guaranteed.
Even the biggest criminal organization takes some hits – but the cartels have been amazingly resilient.
Longtime Sinaloa Cartel boss Guzmán was arrested in 2014, 13 years after he first escaped from Mexico’s maximum security prison in a laundry cart.
He escaped a second time in July 2015 through a tunnel and was rearrested in January 2016 after months of international publicity that drug organizations usually like to avoid.
Unlike that of some of his competitors who are locked up in Mexico, Guzmán’s extradition to the United States was not derailed and was completed last month.
His longtime No. 2, Ismael Zambada, also took a hit.
In 2015, the guilty plea in a Chicago federal court signed by Jesus Vicente Zambada Niebla, now 40, was unsealed. It showed that Zambada Niebla, Zambada’s most competent son, was cooperating with U.S. authorities.
The son had helped run the cartel’s smuggling operations from South America into Mexico and then into the United States. He also was responsible for making payments to Mexican government and police officials.
He was arrested in 2008 by Mexican law enforcement and extradited to the United States in 2009.
His defense team claimed that Zambada Niebla believed he and the rest of the Sinaloa Cartel had a deal with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to provide information about other cartels in exchange for some sort of immunity from prosecution. The government denied the allegations, but apparently Zambada Niebla did meet with U.S. federal agents before he was arrested in Mexico.
He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison and a minimum of 10 years.
He described in the plea agreement the distribution of multiple tons of cocaine, often involving hundreds of kilograms at a time, on a monthly, if not weekly, basis from 2005 to 2008.
Zambada Niebla admitted that he coordinated the importation of multi-ton quantities of cocaine from Colombia and Panama into the interior of Mexico, where he arranged transportation and storage of the shipments ultimately headed for the United States.
The cartel used various means of transportation, including private aircraft, submarines, and other submersible and semisubmersible vessels, container ships, fast boats, fishing vessels, buses, rail cars, tractor-trailers and automobiles. He coordinated the delivery of hundreds of kilograms of cocaine to wholesale distributors in Mexico, who would then arrange to smuggle the drugs into the United States.
On most occasions, the Sinaloa Cartel supplied the cocaine to these wholesalers on a consignment basis because of the wholesalers’ long-standing relationships with key cartel figures.
Zambada Niebla in his plea deal also agreed not to contest a forfeiture judgment of more than $1.37 billion.
As an extra bonus to our readers, Mike Gallagher provides additional background and insights about the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels in video interviews.