Sinaloa Cartel Leader El Mayos ‘Gordo’ Son Got Off Light in a US Court. Why?

Ismael Zambada-Imperial, known for his lavish lifestyle, is the latest member of the world's most prolific drug cartel to strike a deal with the U.S.
Ismael Zambada-Imperial (L) should be a free man soon. His father (R) remains at large.
Ismael Zambada-Imperial (L) should be a free man soon. His father (R) remains at large. 

The son of Sinaloa Cartel leader Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada will soon be a free man after striking a plea deal with U.S. federal prosecutors and receiving leniency from a judge during his sentencing last week in San Diego.

The younger Zambada is the latest member of his family to receive a relatively light punishment in the U.S., prompting outrage from some law enforcement agents who have called for harsher penalties against Mexico’s most powerful narco clan. 


In a court hearing that occurred early Friday morning with little fanfare, 37-year-old Ismael Zambada-Imperial was officially sentenced to nine years after pleading guilty to charges that he conspired to smuggle “tonnage quantities of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana” into the U.S. from Mexico, and “ordered acts of violence” by other cartel members.

But the sentence gives Zambada-Imperial—nicknamed “Mayito Gordo,” or the chubby little version of his dad, El Mayo—credit for time served in jail since his capture in Mexico in 2014 and 2019 extradition. An exact release date was not announced, but his defense attorney said it’s expected to be sometime in July. After he’s out, Zambada-Imperial will be under supervised release for five years. He also agreed to hand over $5 million in illicit drug proceeds.

Handing down his decision, Chief U.S. District Judge Dana M. Sabraw referenced a letter sent by prosecutors advocating for a reduced sentence, indicating that El Mayo’s son has been cooperating with U.S. investigators. 

Sabraw called the sentence “just and fair” and based on his belief that the Sinaloa Cartel scion is no longer the man he was 10 years ago, when he was a high-profile player in the world’s most prolific drug trafficking organization. The judge noted that while Zambada-Imperial was locked up in Mexico, he chose to remain behind bars and face extradition rather than participate in a jailbreak that saw 16 other prisoners escape.


“I was very impressed with the full acceptance of responsibility,” Sabraw said. “You’re clearly genuinely remorseful.” 

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. El Mayo’s brother and another son testified against their former Sinaloa Cartel ally, the infamous Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who by comparison received a life sentence with no chance for parole after a trial conviction in 2019.

The perception that El Mayo’s relatives are getting away with slaps on the wrist has rubbed some U.S. law enforcement agents the wrong way. One person familiar with Mayito Gordo’s case, who was not authorized to speak publicly, called the outcome a “disgrace,” saying it “makes no sense” and “undermines the whole system.”

“It should piss off America as a whole,” the person said. “I really still can’t believe it.”

El Mayo is now 74 and has never been captured despite having a bounty on his head from the U.S. government that currently stands at $15 million. While El Chapo became a household name following his brazen prison escapes and an ill-fated meeting with the actor Sean Penn, his longtime partner El Mayo largely stayed in the shadows and retained his role as a top boss of the Sinaloa Cartel across several turbulent decades.


A decade ago, Mayito Gordo was an heir to his father’s throne. Like the sons of El Chapo, he was a “narco junior,” a princeling who grew up flaunting inherited wealth and power, posting pictures on Instagram of flashy cars, expensive watches, and other trappings of the luxurious lifestyle he enjoyed as a wanted fugitive in Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa.

But as he shuffled into the courtroom last week in San Diego, Zambada-Imperial had clearly aged. Heavyset but not as “gordo” as his nickname might suggest, he had a tidy black beard and a receding hairline and wore a mustard yellow prison smock. He waved and smiled at a half-dozen family members in attendance, but otherwise showed little emotion. 

“With my heart in my hand I ask society for forgiveness for my actions,” Zambada-Imperial said, addressing the court through a Spanish translator. He apologized to the judge for his past behavior and to his family for being absent from their lives while serving time in prison.

“Because of my poor decisions, I dragged them into this life without realizing what I was doing,” Zambada-Imperial said. “With all my heart, I wish I’d be given a second opportunity in life.”

Members of the Zambada family in attendance declined to comment after the sentencing.

His defense attorney, Saji Vettiyil, told the judge that after nearly 10 years of incarceration his client had no intention of returning to the drug business, saying that “for him to return, for him to go back into the trade, would be an impossible thing.”


Prosecutors previously sought to portray Zambada-Imperial as a key lieutenant to his father, coordinating shipments of drugs across a vast smuggling network that stretched across Central and South America, supplying cocaine, meth, and heroin to cities across the U.S. “and throughout the world, including Mexico, Colombia, Canada, Philippines, Guatemala, Great Britain, Australia and China.” 

Zambada-Imperial, court records say, was captured as part of a lengthy investigation that “involved years of court-authorized wiretaps of over 100 BlackBerrys resulting in tens of thousands of intercepted Blackberry messages.”

Announcing Zambada-Imperial’s decision to plead guilty last year, federal officials touted the “significant impact” his arrest had on the cartel’s global operations.

“Zambada-Imperial’s guilty plea today sends a message to other drug kingpins operating in Mexico,” said U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman, the top federal prosecutor in San Diego. “There is no place to hide because our law enforcement partners will find you and work tirelessly to bring you to justice in the United States.”

A DEA official said Zambada-Imperial’s capture brought the agency “one step closer towards dismantling the violent Sinaloa Cartel.”

It’s been just over a year since those statements were issued, and Zambada-Imperial is now poised to soon regain his freedom. His three co-defendants, including his father, brother, and a son of El Chapo, remain on the lam in Mexico and are as powerful as ever. The nature of Zambada-Imperial’s cooperation with the government was not detailed in court, but he could have information not just about his father’s organization but also El Chapo’s faction of the Sinaloa Cartel, currently led by his sons, known as Los Chapitos.


Zambada-Imperial’s younger brother, Serafín Zambada-Ortíz was arrested in 2013 while trying to cross into the United States at the port of entry in Nogales, Arizona. Nicknamed “El Flaco” or The Skinny One, Zambada-Ortíz pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges and received a five-year sentence that allowed him to be released in 2018. 

Sabraw was also the judge in Zambada-Ortíz’s case, and both Zambada brothers were represented by Vettiyil, a veteran defense attorney who said he plans to retire following last week’s sentencing. To help convince the judge to be lenient with Zambada-Ortíz, Vettiyil filed a lengthy memo to the court detailing the difficulties of growing up as El Mayo’s son.

“I lived in a golden cage with luxuries that were useless,” Serafín Zambada wrote, describing the cartel warfare that marred his childhood, including a car bombing that occurred at his second birthday party and the assassinations of his grandparents, uncle, and aunt when he was nine.

The sentencing memo in Zambada-Imperial’s case was filed under seal and is not available to the public, but his attorney, Vettiyil, said the judge’s sentence reflects a range of factors, “including his very difficult childhood,” and “his willingness to remain in custody” when his co-defendants escaped from prison in Mexico.


“Mr. Zambada-Imperial is grateful for the faith placed in him by the Court and will work hard every day for the rest of his life to prove that he is a better man than his conduct in these offenses would indicate,” Vettiyil said in a statement to VICE News.

In April, Serafín Zambada was hospitalized following a major car crash in the state of Sonora that left his wife dead. The crash occurred near the town of Caborca, about 90 miles from the Arizona border, in territory that the Sinaloa Cartel is said to be disputing against a rival group. 

Vettiyil insisted that Serafín has not returned to the drug trade, saying his client now makes a living by farming corn.

El Mayo’s eldest son, Jesús Vicente Zambada Niebla, alias "El Vicentillo," was captured in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in prison by a federal judge in Chicago in 2019, but he too received credit for his cooperation and is now believed to be in witness protection. In April, Vicente Zambada was removed from the U.S. Treasury Department’s so-called Kingpin List of sanctioned drug traffickers, allowing him to regain access to the U.S. financial system. 

After his extradition from Mexico, Vicente Zambada initially claimed that his father and El Chapo had arranged a secret deal with the DEA that gave him immunity in exchange for providing information about rival cartels. He eventually cast aside that defense, pleading guilty and forfeiting assets worth $1.37 billion. The DEA and federal prosecutors have denied that any sort of immunity deal ever existed with El Mayo’s son.


El Vicentillo was a key witness for the prosecution in the trial of El Chapo, along with his uncle, El Mayo’s brother, Jesús Reynaldo Zambada. Known as “El Rey” or The King, El Mayo’s brother testified about high-level corruption in Mexico, including a bribe he allegedly paid to an official associated with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador during a 2008 campaign. López Obrador has denied the allegation. Like his nephew, Rey Zambada was also removed from the Kingpin List in 2021 and is believed to be under witness protection.

Rey Zambada’s name surfaced recently in the prosecution of Genaro García Luna, a former top Mexican security official accused by federal prosecutors in Brooklyn of taking millions of dollars in bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel. On June 15, prosecutors asked the presiding judge to allow evidence that allegedly shows García Luna plotting with a jailhouse informant to target potential witnesses against him, including El Rey.

Prosecutors quoted from recordings where García Luna mentions the name “Reynaldo,” and the jailhouse informant says, ““Kill the witnesses, kill the…”

“Family,” prosecutors say García Luna interjected.

“The family,” the informant said.

García Luna’s attorney has disputed the allegations, writing in a recent court filing that the recordings are “largely inaudible or unintelligible” and the informant’s allegations “unreliable and untrue.”

García Luna’s case is scheduled for a trial later this year, and like the prosecution of El Chapo it’s expected to involve testimony from high-level cooperators.

David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in Miami who worked cartel cases, said that while federal sentencing guidelines are intended to ensure fairness across the system, cutting a deal and avoiding a trial is the way for defendants (whether they are Zambadas or anonymous middlemen) to avoid life in prison.

“Part of the problem with the federal system is there are very few trials,” said Weinstein, who is now a defense attorney. “Cooperation seems to be the only way to get a reduction in sentence. The question is, who is cooperating? You don’t want top down—the people who cooperate should be in the midrange cooperating up. It just seems everybody is ratting somebody out for something in order to save their own skin.”

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