MEXICO CITY—The U.S. State Department just tripled the reward for information leading to the arrest of Sinaloa Cartel boss Ismael Zambada García, who has evaded capture for decades as his longtime partners and relatives have all been locked up or killed.
The new reward, announced this week, jumped from $5 million to a staggering $15 million.
Zambada, known as “El Mayo,” is alleged to have been a longtime partner of Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. But unlike Guzmán—who is serving a life sentence at a federal supermax prison in Colorado—Zambada has never spent time behind bars. His ability to remain hidden for years has become the stuff of legend in the criminal underworld.
Zambada, believed to be 73 years old, allegedly entered the drug trade in the 1970s and worked with members of the Guadalajara Cartel, generally considered to be the first modern Mexican drug trafficking organization. When several top bosses were arrested in the late 80s, the Guadalajara Cartel splintered into several factions. Zambada reportedly aligned himself with El Chapo, and together they founded and ran the Sinaloa Cartel along with other associates beginning in the 90s.
El Chapo was arrested and imprisoned twice by Mexican authorities, before escaping prison in 2001 and 2015. After his third capture in 2016 he was extradited to the United States where he was sentenced to life in prison. A third presumed leader of the cartel, Ignacio Coronel Villarreal, was killed by Mexican soldiers in 2010.
As his partners fell, Zambada kept a low profile, only popping his head up once when he gave an interview to Mexican newsweekly Proceso in 2010, where he bragged that authorities nearly caught him on four separate occasions, but each time he was able to escape.
While Zambada has been on the lam, the rest of his family hasn't been so lucky. His son, Ismael Zambada Jr., brother, Jesús Zambada, and nephew, Jesús Zambada Jr., were arrested in Mexico City in 2008. Another son, Vicente Zambada, was arrested in 2009. A third son, Serafín Zambada, was arrested in 2013 and released from a U.S. prison in 2018 after serving his sentence.
Both his brother, Jesús, and son, Vicente, testified against El Chapo in his 2019 New York trial and also implicated El Mayo in the drug trade with their testimonies.
With the new reward of $15 million, Zambada now has the second highest bounty on his head of any alleged drug lord in Mexico. Only Rafael Caro Quintero, who is wanted for his alleged role in the kidnapping and murder of DEA Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in 1985, commands a higher reward: $20 million.
Caro Quintero walked out of a Mexican prison under dubious circumstances in 2013 after serving 28 years of a 40-year sentence. U.S. authorities were furious at the release because they expected Caro Quintero to be extradited after serving his prison time in Mexico.
The announcement of the increased reward came on the same day that a U.S. federal grand jury indictment from 2018 was unsealed against an alleged cartel boss who “traffics fentanyl and other drugs and operates at the direction of Sinaloa Cartel leader Ismael Zambada.”
Authorities allege that Sergio Valenzuela Valenzuela, alias Gigio, is a Sinaloa Cartel plaza boss in the border state of Sonora, and “leads a poly-drug smuggling organization responsible for the transportation and importation of multi-ton quantities of illicit drugs, including methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl, from Mexico into the United States.”
The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) also said Wednesday that it had designated 52-year-old Sergio Valenzuela Valenzuela as a Significant Foreign Narcotics Trafficker under the Kingpin Act. In the announcement, authorities also designated seven other alleged lieutenants involved in Valenzuela's cell of the Sinaloa cartel, including his “right-hand man”, Leonardo Pineda Armenta.