The son of Sinaloa Cartel leader Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada is out of the U.S. federal prison system—but sources told VICE World News he’s fighting to stay in the U.S. rather than face deportation back to Mexico.
Ismael Zambada-Imperial, known as “Mayito Gordo” or the chubby little version of his dad, was captured in Mexico in 2014 and extradited five years later to San Diego, where he pleaded guilty to smuggling “tonnage quantities of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana” for his father’s organization. He was sentenced last month to nine years in prison, but with credit for time served and a deal with prosecutors, he was officially released from Bureau of Prisons custody last week. But he was not allowed to walk free.
The 37-year-old Zambada-Imperial was transferred from the San Diego Metropolitan Detention Center to the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), according to multiple sources who spoke with VICE World News. He’s now housed in an ICE jail operated by a private prison company, the GEO Group, near Victorville, California, with a decision about his fate expected in the coming days.
Multiple Mexican news outlets reported over the weekend that Zambada-Imperial was deported to Tijuana after being freed from U.S. federal custody, but sources confirmed he remains on the U.S. side of the border in immigration detention.
“He is looking to break a deal with the DOJ (U.S. Department of Justice) to get (legal immigration) status to stay in the U.S.,” said a federal law enforcement source who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the press.
Zambada-Imperial’s attorney, Saji Vettiyil, declined to comment.
It’s not uncommon for ex-cartel members to petition the U.S. government to remain in the country after they’ve served prison time. Those who have cooperated with investigators can request witness protection or a “deferred action” sponsored by a federal law enforcement agency, which grants temporary permission to stay and can lead to long-term residency. Others who fear persecution can seek protections that prevent people from being sent back to a country where they could face torture.
Mexican officials did not respond to questions about whether Zambada-Imperial faces criminal charges in his home country or would be arrested after being deported. He previously served five years in Mexican prison for illegal weapons possession.
Zambada-Imperial’s younger brother, Serafín Zambada-Ortiz, was previously convicted of drug trafficking in the U.S. and released back to Mexico in 2018, where he now lives freely and claims to have left the family business.
But the safety of high-profile former cartel members is not guaranteed. In 2020, the ex-leader of a Sinaloa Cartel hit squad known as “Los Antrax,” José Rodrigo Aréchiga Gamboa, was found murdered, along with his sister and brother-in-law, days after he walked out of U.S. custody and returned to Sinaloa’s capital Culiacán.
“El Chino Antrax,” as Aréchiga Gamboa was called, had cooperated with U.S. law enforcement. He also once worked for Zambada-Imperial, who admitted in his plea agreement that he “ordered acts of violence” to be committed on his behalf by other cartel members.
Given his role as a young boss in the Sinaloa Cartel, the relatively light sentence for Zambada-Imperial prompted outrage from some U.S. law enforcement agents.
“Gordo wasn’t a trigger-puller, but he ran [the Sinaloa Cartel hit squad] Los Antrax,” said one U.S. law enforcement source familiar with the case. “That was his circle. He was violent. He destroyed families.”
Even after he leaves prison, Zambada-Imperial won’t be done with the U.S. justice system. If he stays in the U.S., he’ll be under supervised release for five years. He also agreed to hand over $5 million in illicit drug proceeds.
Zambada-Imperial is now the fourth member of El Mayo’s immediate family to navigate the U.S. criminal justice system and receive a relatively favorable outcome, either walking free from prison or disappearing into witness protection or the other types of protective custody that exist for government informants.
El Mayo’s brother and another son testified against their former Sinaloa Cartel ally, the infamous Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who received a life sentence with no chance for parole after a trial conviction in 2019, and will live out the rest of his days at a “supermax” facility in Colorado.
After the recent capture of Rafael Caro Quintero, El Mayo is Mexico’s most-wanted cartel kingpin, with a $15 million bounty on his head. Another of his sons, Ismael Zambada-Sicairos, known as “Mayito Flaco” or the skinny version of his dad, is also wanted by the DEA on drug smuggling charges.