January 12, 2016 / 10:10 AM / 2 years ago

With Mexico's 'Chapo' back behind bars, Zambada the last capo standing

Undated police handout picture shows Ismael Zambada, Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman's right-hand man and top trafficker for three decades who has never been captured. To match SPECIAL REPORT - DRUGS-MEXICO/CAPOS REUTERS/Courtesy of the Procuraduria General de la Republica

CULIACAN/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico’s public enemy No. 1, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, was nabbed last week after a gunfight and high speed getaway bid. But his more discreet partner is flourishing, moving tonnes of drugs to the United States and laundering the profits at home.

Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada jointly heads the powerful Sinaloa cartel and, with Guzman behind bars again and facing possible extradition to the United States, it falls to Zambada to maintain the gang’s ranking as the world’s largest.

In the past few years, Mexican security forces have captured or killed almost all the leading kingpins who had dominated drug trafficking over the last two decades. Guzman, the most prominent of all, was recaptured on Friday, six months after his second escape from maximum security prison.

That leaves Zambada, 68, as the most senior capo still standing.

“He is the patriarch,” said Antonio Mazzitelli, the U.N. representative on drugs and crime in Mexico.

Zambada was listed as a defendant in a U.S. case as long ago as 1978, when Colombia’s Pablo Escobar was just starting his trafficking career. Unlike Escobar, who was shot dead in 1993, Zambada has never been arrested and is still selling cocaine.

Eight years ago, the U.S. Treasury Department declared a business network owned by his ex-wife and children was a money-laundering front. But most of the companies are still open.

There are two secrets to his success, experts say. He keeps a low profile and spends heavily on alliances with politicians and police.

“Zambada is very careful,” said Javier Valdez, a founder of Sinaloan weekly newspaper Riodoce, describing him as a man who rarely travels and avoids big cities. “He controls the Sinaloan police, he has businesses in many sectors.”

Rarely photographed, Zambada keeps away from the limelight. In Culiacan, the beating heart of Mexican drug trafficking and the center of his power, his presence is felt everywhere, although he is rarely seen.

Children grew up drinking Santa Monica milk produced at a dairy the United States said was a front organization. Others pass through the kindergarten, aquatic park, and shopping center owned by relatives and associates.

In the small town of Salado, rumored to be Mayo’s home turf, locals warned Reuters reporters not to pry into Zambada’s life. “Don’t even mention his name,” an old woman selling tortillas hissed.

Zambada was born in a village nestled among low mountains called El Alamo, on the outskirts of Culiacan. Until recently he was known to arrive there to hand out money and children‘s’ gifts at Christmas, in the style of old drug lords.

In a rare interview to Mexican news magazine Proceso in 2010, Zambada said he had come close to arrest on four occasions, crawling through ditches to flee soldiers.

On the whole, he said, he was more careful than his friend Guzman. He is also more afraid of serving time, saying that he’d rather die.

BILLIONAIRES

Zambada’s faction of the Sinaloa cartel is a family business with sons occupying top trafficking positions and his daughters owning businesses.

In 2013, Mexican authorities froze two of the dairy’s bank accounts. Two people currently working there said the Santa Monica brand had now been sold to another Culiacan based company called Nuthree. Neither Nuthree or the dairy could be reached for official comment.

Several of Zambada’s relatives are in prison, including three of his sons. Others have died violently.

One son, Vicente Zambada, gave dramatic testimony in a plea deal with the U.S. government in 2013 that showed how central his father was to bringing drug money back from the United States, as well as to shipping cocaine and heroin.

Vicente Zambada earlier said he was a DEA informant and critics allege that by snitching on rivals he helped cement the Sinaloa cartel’s dominance.

Born into poverty, Ismael Zambada once said it was “stupidity” to suggest he might have enough wealth to feature in the Forbes billionaires list, like Guzman.

Still, part of Vicente’s plea deal was an agreement to hand over $1.3 billion in assets. The U.S. government is seeking to confiscate another $2 billion of assets shared by Zambada, Guzman and other associates, according to an indictment unsealed in 2015.

In multiple indictments and statements, the U.S. government has created a picture of the older Zambada as an astute businessmen, managing many of the cartel’s financial operations.

HOMEBODY

While Guzman led the cartel into battle with rivals to expand its control of trafficking routes, Zambada is more closely associated with maintaining its core strength in Sinaloa state.

It is too early to say what impact Guzman’s arrest will have on the Sinaloa cartel, and there are rumors that his eldest son Ivan could take over. But it was Zambada who kept things running when Guzman did his two previous stints in prison.

In an indictment unsealed in Illinois in September, Zambada and Guzman are named as the leaders of the cartel and accused of importing massive shipments of cocaine as well as heroin and methamphetamine into the United States.

Their alliance has been extraordinarily successful and their cartel has been the main winner of a drugs war that killed more than 100,000 people since 2007.

One faction of the cartel broke off until its leader was killed but, unlike other gangs, the Sinaloa cartel remains a relatively stable group.

“(It) is the only real cartel, it was established and keeps on operating as an association of businessmen,” said Mazzitelli.

A map published last year by the Drug Enforcement Administration (www.dea.gov/docs/dir06515.pdf) is testimony to Sinaloa's success.

Apart from Texas and New Mexico, the whole of the United States, from New York to Los Angeles, is shown as being under the influence of the Sinaloa gang.

(Story corrects second state to New Mexico from Arizona, in final paragraph)

Writing and additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Kieran Murray

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