By Ioan Grillo
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico extradited an alleged drug kingpin accused of smuggling billions of dollars in cocaine to the United States, stepping up pressure on Latin America's largest smuggling cartel led by its most wanted man, Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman.
Jesus Zambada, 50, alias "The King," was taken from a top security prison in the border city of Matamoros and put on a plane to New York, where he has been indicted in a federal court in Brooklyn, Mexican officials said Wednesday.
The extradition is part of a five-year offensive against cartels by President Felipe Calderon, who discussed the drug war with President Barack Obama in Washington on Monday.
Zambada was arrested after a shoot-out in Mexico City in 2008. Among his 10 bodyguards were two active police officers.
The indictment against him alleges that he is a leader of the so-called Sinaloa Cartel or Federation and worked with Guzman and his brother Ismael Zambada, alias "The Mayo," to smuggle cocaine from South America between 1990 and 2005.
The indictment states that the cartel trafficked more than 120 tons of cocaine into the United States in the period, which would have a street value of roughly $10 billion.
"Through a network of corrupt police and political contacts, the Federation directed a large-scale narcotics transportation network involving the use of land, air and sea," it said.
"Joaquin Guzman, Ismael Zambada and Jesus Zambada employed "sicarios" or hit men who carried out hundreds of acts of violence, including murders, kidnappings, tortures and violent collections of drug debts, at their direction."
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The three men all hail from the Pacific state of Sinaloa, a mountainous region where smugglers first began to grow opium in the early twentieth century. Guzman and Ismael Zambada are at large with U.S. rewards of $5 million on their heads. Detectives say they are probably hiding in the heights of Sinaloa.
Mexican police have recently arrested several top aides linked to Guzman and say they were close to nabbing the capo himself in February when he was going to meet a girlfriend in the resort of Los Cabos, but Guzman didn't show up.
The extradition of Zambada will increase pressure on the Sinaloa Cartel, as Mexican traffickers often cooperate with U.S. authorities to ease their sentences.
Calderon's single term in office ends this year and his conservative National Action Party (PAN) is running a distant second in polls for presidential elections in July 1. If Guzman is caught, analysts believe it could boost the PAN's ratings.
"It would be a major feather for Calderon to capture ... Guzman," said security consultant Mike Vigil, a former head of international operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. "However, I have personally been up to those mountains in Sinaloa. And you can hide up there for years."
Calderon's crackdown has been criticized for stoking violence, with more than 50,000 drug-related killings since he took office. Police have also come under fire for abuses.
At the Monday meeting, Obama commended Calderon's efforts but said the increased bloodshed was of grave concern.
"The Mexican government has taken this very seriously, at great cost to itself," Obama said.
"If you have this kind of violence and the power of the drug trade as a whole expanding in countries that are so closely affiliated with us...if they're undermining institutions in these countries, that will impact our capacity to do business."
(Reporting By Ioan Grillo)