Decade after Chicago charges, drug underboss finally takes aim at El Chapo

CHICAGO (WLS) -- In the billion-dollar world of bloodshed and cartel drugs, the only thing benign about Vicente Zambada Niebla is his nickname: El Vicentillo, aka "Pretty Boy."

When Zambada was arrested during a 2009 Mexican Army operation and extradited to Chicago, he was the highest ranking drug capo ever facing prosecution in the United States-responsible for a tide of heroin and cocaine into Chicago and the collateral damage that accompanies it.

Zambada had the drug business in his DNA. He was the son of a cartel boss and the heir apparent to the mega-lucrative Sinaloa organization-owned and operated by his father and notorious drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. When El Chapo was also arrested a few years later, Zambada was relegated to the number two most noteworthy cartel boss awaiting trial in the U.S.

For the past ten years he has waited for his day of reckoning in court, eager to tell all about the Sinaloa cartel and its cutthroat, folk-hero level leader now known simply as Chapo.

On Monday in New York, Zambada snaked his way through a maze of Mexican cartel stories, under direct examination by federal prosecutors who are trying to convict Chapo.

Zambada, who has pleaded guilty in the Chicago case against him-but yet to be sentenced told jurors how he once planned to break EL Chapo's brother out of prison with a helicopter. Oddly, Zambada himself was thought to be a helicopter-escape risk in 2011 when he was locked up in Chicago's Metropolitan Correctional Center.

As the I-Team reported, federal authorities moved him from Chicago to a prison in Michigan, fearing that a chopper might swoop down onto the MCC rooftop in a Hollywood-style jailbreak. There were also fears that cartel assassins perched on nearby Loop buildings might try to gun down the cartel major domo.

Zambada, now 43, faces a maximum sentence of life in prison and a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years-hinged on his full and truthful cooperation. He has portrayed EL Chapo as a gun fanatic. "Every time I saw [Guzman], he was armed," said Zambada. Federal prosecutors showed off a sultry dancefloor photo of the drug lord Chapo with a bejeweled pistol in his waistband and an unidentified woman in his arms.

Zambada-Niebla pleaded guilty in Chicago to one count of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute multiple kilograms of cocaine and heroin between 2005 and 2008. He admitted to distributing multiple tons of cocaine.
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