El Chapo Trial: How a Cartel Prince Left the Drug Trade

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In 2007, an unlikely figure vowed to leave the Sinaloa drug cartel: Vicente Zambada Niebla, a son of one of its leaders and the group’s heir apparent.

As strange as it was that a cartel prince wanted to quit the empire that he had been groomed to run, Mr. Zambada’s plan to escape the enterprise was even more unusual: His father’s partner, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the crime lord known as El Chapo, offered to put him in touch with federal drug agents in the United States, he said.

While many of the details of Mr. Zambada’s departure from the drug trade are still shrouded in secrecy, he talked about some of them for first time Friday on the witness stand at Mr. Guzmán’s drug trial in New York.

At 32, Mr. Zambada told the jurors, he had grown weary of the narco life and asked his father, Ismael Zambada García, for permission to “retire.” It was then, he said, that Mr. Guzmán made an astonishing proposal: He offered to reach out to his “contacts” in the Drug Enforcement Administration and see if they would meet with the young man.

Mr. Zambada never said who those contacts were or whether Mr. Guzmán made good on his offer, but the American authorities have acknowledged that within two years of floating the idea of leaving the cartel, Mr. Zambada sat down with agents from the D.E.A. at a clandestine meeting in Mexico.

That encounter led, by twists and turns, to his arrest in March 2009 and extradition to Chicago. It also led to a cooperation agreement with the United States government and his appearance this week as a prosecution witness at Mr. Guzmán’s trial.

The tantalizing mention of the drug kingpin having allies in the D.E.A. came as Mr. Zambada faced cross-examination.

[Read more about Vicente Zambada Niebla’s testimony.]

Drug traffickers and the agents who pursue them are often thought to exist in separate worlds, living on their own sides of the law and meeting only in those climactic moments when an arrest is made. But the Guzmán trial, which is being held in Federal District Court in Brooklyn, has suggested something different: that even the most black-and-white boundaries can at times be blurred or crossed.

Last month, for example, Juan Carlos Ramírez Abadía, Mr. Guzmán’s main supplier of Colombian cocaine, testified that when he learned he was under investigation by American authorities, he reached out to the D.E.A. and tried to strike what his lawyer later called “a rapprochement.”

Though the two sides ultimately failed to make a deal, Mr. Ramírez, suffering no harm, went back to selling drugs for an additional 10 years.

Mr. Zambada’s situation was slightly more complex. He was at first on track to be prosecuted in Chicago for smuggling tons of drugs while serving as his father’s right-hand man. But before his trial began, his lawyers unveiled a startling defense: They claimed that after his meeting with the D.E.A., he started working as a spy for the agency, trading information on his rivals in exchange for the ability to run his business freely.

“In essence,” his lawyers wrote in a 2011 pretrial motion, “the United States government entered into a conspiracy with one of the largest drug cartels in the world.”

Federal prosecutors denied there was any conspiracy and in the end, a judge did not allow Mr. Zambada to defend himself by arguing one existed. He pleaded guilty in 2013 and agreed to cooperate.

Judge Brian M. Cogan recently ensured that the same allegations would also not be heard at Mr. Guzmán’s trial in Brooklyn. In a ruling this week, the judge forbade any mention of a possible quid pro quo agreement between Mr. Zambada and the government from the trial, saying it would “create a sideshow” that risked “confusing the issues” and “misleading the jury.”

Still, Mr. Zambada testified that the American authorities continued to work with him, in somewhat curious ways, even as his case proceeded toward trial.

He described an extraordinary scene in which federal agents plucked him from his jail cell in Chicago late one night in 2012. From there, he said, he was taken to an office and handed a phone. His father was on the line.

The elder Mr. Zambada was a wanted man, an international criminal with a million-dollar bounty on his head. The agents asked the son to urge the father to surrender. Mr. Zambada said he did.

Though there was no surrender, the two men spoke for several minutes, discussing their mood, health and legal situations.

“He told me he loved me very much,” Mr. Zambada said.

It was, he added, the last time he spoke with his father.

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