Ismael Zamaba Imperial — the eldest son of top Sinaloa Cartel boss Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada — was arrested this week in Culiacán, Sinaloa by Mexican special forces. The cartel scion and several of his associates were detained November 12 by members of the Mexican army and navy in an operation that reportedly targeted his father.
The younger Zambada — nicknamed "El Mayito Gordo," the chubby little version of his dad — isn't thought to be a major player in his father's drug empire, but his arrest may signal that authorities are finally getting serious about tracking down the elusive capo. Unlike his father, who mostly keeps a low profile, Mayito was seemingly an easy target for the authorities. Not only was he known as a playboy in Culiacán — the capital city of Sinaloa and the cartel's stronghold — for a time he flaunted his narco lifestyle on Twitter, posting pictures of expensive toys, guns, and fiestas.
The social media presence of the sons of various cartel leaders has been widely chronicled, with El Mayo's other son Serafin Zambada receiving a share of the attention, and Alfredo Guzmán, the son of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán, gaining notoriety for posting pictures of cheetahs, piles of cash, and a Lamborghini. El Mayito interacted with both of them online. He used the name "Mayito Gordo" on his account (which is not verified by Twitter), and posted a tweet last October saying he's not actually fat like his nickname suggests.
Ya no estoy gordo les afirmo
— Mayito Gordo (@ismaelimperial)October 24, 2013
"They said I'm not fat anymore."
El Mayito liked to share images of expensive trucks, all-terrain vehicles, watches, and shoes. Tweets posted last August show a pair of custom Nikes that allegedly belonged to El Chino Ántrax, a Sinaloa cartel enforcer who was captured in Amsterdam in December 2013. Chino Ántrax — real name: Rodrigo Arechiga Gamboa — was extradited to the US and now faces federal conspiracy drug charges. Chino Ántrax posted prolifically on Twitter and Instagram, and some reports speculated after his arrest that his social media presence led to his downfall.
"Keep it on the down low."
"It's hard for me."
Javier Valdez, a Mexican journalist who covers organized crime and cofounded the Culiacan-based news organization Rio Doce, told VICE News that El Mayito's arrest is not a significant blow to the Sinaloa cartel.
"For me, the arrest of El Mayito Gordo is not a big deal," Valdez said. "It's a sentimental, family, and moral blow to the family of Mayo Zambada. The guy [El Mayito] did not have weight in the organization. He was going to parties, out on the town, showing off his guns, jewelry, women. It's said he was not an operative and had a very specific responsibility in Culiacan, but he was not strong or high level. The level he had was because he was a son of El Mayo."
Valdez also said that the word on the street was that El Mayo told his son and others to stop posting about their exploits after Chino Ántrax was captured. El Mayito's last tweet was posted July 25, 2014. It shows him surrounded by young women at a party or nightclub.
"We know that in the summer he caught his father's attention and he [El Mayo] prohibited him from posting photos and videos on social networks (Facebook, Twitter) bragging about his binges and fun and presumably showing where he was and what he was doing," Valdez said.
Mayito is the third of El Mayo's sons captured by authorities. Serafin Zambada was caught crossing the border near Nogales, Arizona in November 2013, and reports suggested his Twitter account, which featured pictures of bags of weed, exotic cats, and assault rifles, provided intelligence in the operation.
More significantly, Vicente Zambada Niebla — a.k.a. El Vicentillo — was arrested in 2009 in Sinaloa and extradited to the US. He was allegedly a key cartel figure responsible for coordinating "multi-ton" drug shipments to the US, and pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy charges in April. Court documents in the case indicated that, in exchange for information, the DEA looked the other way while Zambada's organization imported cocaine to Chicago.
Alejandro Hope, a former Mexican intelligence official who now works as a security analyst, also speculated that El Mayito is not an important player in the Sinaloa cartel, but suggested the younger Zambada could perhaps offer valuable information if he his extradited like his brother.
"It's fine that they caught this guy, but the important question is whether they're going to extradite him like his brother and get a trove of information from him like his brother did," Hope said. "That could be interesting."
Hope told VICE News that El Mayito's arrest is a sign that, "the chase for Mayo is still going on."
El Mayo, believed to be around 66 years old, is a living narco legend in Mexico. Originally a farmer from rural Sinaloa, he began working for the Juarez cartel in the 1980s and gradually accumulated power over the next two decades, forming his own organization and staying on top while his rivals and partners steadily ended up dead or behind bars, including the infamous El Chapo, who was arrested February 22 in Mazatlán, a Sinaloa beach town.
El Mayo granted an interview in 2010 to a prominent Mexican journalist from the investigative news magazine Proceso, but has mostly avoided the limelight. With El Chapo locked up, El Mayo and Juan José "El Azul" Esparragoza are now believed to be the top two leaders of the Sinaloa cartel. There were reports that El Azul died of a heart attack earlier this year, but evidence later surfaced indicating he faked his death and is still alive.
The timing of El Mayito's arrest is curious. Valdez said that he was frequently seen in public in Culiacán, suggesting that police could have arrested him whenever they wanted.
"He was walking the streets of Culiacan, going to restaurants, shopping centers, the movies, and nightclubs without any problems," Valdez said. "He always had security, his bodyguards, but that wasn't a scandal. He liked the parties and the women, of course."
Mexico has captured a number of high-profile drug lords in recent months, including Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, leader of the Juarez cartel, and Hector Beltrán Leyva, head of a major drug trafficking organization that bears his family's name. Cynics have accused Mexico of waiting until moments of scandal or political crisis to arrest cartel kingpins in order to distract the media.
Though the country is currently embroiled in violent protests over the apparent massacre of 43 teaching students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School in the state of Guerrero at the hands of local police and cartel hitmen, Hope said El Mayito's arrest was likely unrelated.
"These intelligence operations are not that easy to time them for political effect," Hope said. "There's no way you can just pull the switch. It takes time and a lot of work. You have to have a plan, you can't just charge in."
Besides, Hope added, "it's not like because they caught the son of Mayo Zambada the people are going to stop talking about Ayotzinapa."
Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton