A Chicago federal judge issued a ruling Thursday denying a sensational claim by an admitted Mexican cartel lieutenant imprisoned in Michigan that the U.S. government granted him blanket immunity that gave him carte blanche to smuggle cocaine over the border.
Lawyers for Vicente Zambada claimed U.S. agents granted him and other cartel leaders the immunity in exchange for intelligence about rival cartels engaged in bloody turf wars in Mexico.
In his 11-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo wrote that he examined public and sealed documents from U.S. agents that deny ever conferring immunity directly or indirectly on Zambada.
"The court's independent review of these documents established that none of these classified documents support defendant's legal position," Castillo wrote.
Prosecutors have acknowledged that DEA agents encountered Zambada when a cartel lawyer brought him to a hotel meeting against the agents' instructions. But they say they never entered into an agreement for his cooperation or granted him immunity.
Zambada worked for Mexico's largest drug syndicate, the Sinaloa cartel, which is run by his father, Ismael Zambada, and Mexico's most wanted man, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
After the governor offered a credible response to Vicente Zambada, Castillo said in his Thursday ruling, the burden shifted back to Zambada and his defense team to revive their dramatic claims.
But, Castillo wrote, despite "multiple extensions of time, Zambada has produced no affidavits or other evidentiary documentation in support of his motion."
Zambada was arrested in 2009 in Mexico City, after which Mexican authorities paraded him before TV cameras in a stylish black blazer and dark blue jeans. He was extradited to the United States in 2010 to face trafficking conspiracy charges punishable by up to life in prison.
He is imprisoned awaiting an October trial in federal court. Zambada was initially jailed at a federal prison in Chicago but was transferred to Michigan after complaining about his conditions in Chicago.
The Sinaloa cartel is one of Mexico's most powerful. Named after the Pacific coast state of the same name, it controls trafficking on the border with California and is battling rival cartels in an effort to expand east along the 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border.