Meet The Man Who Runs The Sinaloa Cartel... With Or Without 'El Chapo'

Unlike "El Chapo," Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada hasn't spent years in prison.

01/21/2016 09:13 am ET | Updated Jan 21, 2016

He was born in the countryside of the Mexican state of Sinaloa, entered the drug trade as a teenager and presides over what many believe is the hemisphere's largest drug trafficking operation. But unlike recently recaptured drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, he isn’t a household name.

Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García, the man many believe to have the most control over the Sinaloa cartel, has spent five decades in the drug trade. While El Chapo is widely described as the cartel’s leader, that notion obscures the fact that Sinaloa operates more like a federation with multiple leaders who form something analogous to a board of directors.

Within that group, Zambada, 68, has likely risen to become the most powerful player. Unlike Guzmán, “El Mayo” Zambada hasn’t been sidelined by yearslong stints in prison.

U.S. Department of the Treasury
Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada likely plays the strongest leading role in the Sinaloa cartel. 

When Guzmán was first jailed from 1993 to 2001, it was Zambada who oversaw the Sinaloa cartel’s continued expansion. It was Zambada who sent a private helicopter to whisk Guzmán to safety not too long after he slipped out of Puente Grande in a laundry basket, according to journalist Malcolm Beith’s 2010 book The Last Narco. And it was Zambada who facilitated Guzmán’s rise once again after his first escape.

Former head of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration international operations Mike Vigil, who spent 13 years working in Mexico, described Zambada as one of the most elusive drug lords whom Mexico has targeted.

“‘El Mayo’ Zambada” is one of the oldest capos still surviving in Mexico,” Vigil told The WorldPost. “He’s extremely highly respected by the drug trafficking community there. He has actually expanded the Sinaloa drug cartel operations since the time that ‘El Chapo’ was in jail.”

Born in the Sinaloa hamlet of El Alamo, Zambada began life as a farmer, in a state blanketed with illicit poppy and marijuana fields. Early in his criminal career, he also worked as a hitman in Ciudad Juárez, according to Beith. He rose to the leadership of the Sinaloa cartel when he was in his 40s.

Part of the reason people know less about Zambada is that he keeps a low profile. In one unusual exception, he arranged an interview in 2010 with Julio Scherer García, the former director of Mexican magazine Proceso.

A 2003 billboard posted in Southern Arizona offers a reward for information leading to the arrest of Zambada.

He described living in constant fear of getting caught. Zambada said that at least four times the military had gotten close enough to nab him.

“I fled to the hills,” Zambada said. “I know the foliage, the streams, the rocks, everything. They’ll only catch me if I slow down and get sloppy, like El Chapo.” 

Though Zambada had sought out Scherer, the drug lord declined to answer questions about his first-born son, Vicente. Known by his diminutive nickname, “Vicentillo” Zambada was arrested in Mexico in 2009 and extradited to the United States the next year on drug trafficking charges. His case caused an uproar when his lawyer contended that Vicentillo Zambada couldn’t be charged with drug trafficking because he was simultaneously working as an informant for the DEA.

The DEA and Department of Justice both denied extending him immunity and the case was resolved in 2013, when Vicentillo Zambada accepted a plea deal and ceded more than $1 billion worth of assets.

“I’m not going to talk about my boy,” Zambada told Scherer in 2010. “I cry for him.”

Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images
Mexican authorities present Vicente Zambada, "El Mayo" Zambada's son, to the press after his arrest in 2009. He was extradited to the United States, where he is in prison.

Though he doesn’t command the same international brand recognition as “El Chapo,” Zambada has long attracted the attention of U.S. law enforcement. President George W. Bush added him to the list of sanctioned foreign nationals under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act in 2002. He faces indictment in several jurisdictions across the United States for charges including drug trafficking, money laundering and homicide.

That fact that the Sinaloa cartel retains such a prominent leader causes many analysts to think the organization will continue to thrive despite Guzmán’s arrest. The recapture also isn’t likely to provoke the splintering and in-fighting associated with the decapitation of smaller cartels.

“Most of the time violence does increase after the government arrests or kills the leader of a criminal group,” Brian Phillips, a professor who researches organized crime and violence in Mexico, told HuffPost. “With Sinaloa [cartel] it’s a little different because it’s a very established group and there’s a second leader, ‘El Mayo’ Zambada, running the show. So you’re more likely to see continuity and stability.”

Despite his vaunted position, Zambada appears to view himself as a replaceable element in a vast machine. Echoing words El Chapo said in a video recording sent to Rolling Stone, Zambada told Scherer in 2010 that the day he died or was captured, the traffic would continue without him.

“The problem of drug trafficking involves millions [of people],” Zambada said. “How do you control that? As for the drug lords, whether they’re locked up, killed or extradited, their replacements are already there lurking.”

Read more on the Sinaloa cartel: 

- One Extremely Important Takeaway From Rolling Stone's El Chapo Story
- Mexico's Not Sure When It Will Seal Tunnel El Chapo Used To Escape
- Why The Capture Of El Chapo Won't Stop His Cartel

Also on HuffPost: 

The Hunt For El Chapo