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Ismael Zambada, El Mayo, is by most accounts a co-equal leader of the Sinaloa Cartel. But unlike El Chapo, he has never seen the inside of a prison. And unlike El Chapo, he’s at large and has been since his narco career started 50 years ago.
And what about El Mayo?
He’s as much a leader of the Sinaloa Cartel as El Chapo has been, which makes him one of the most powerful capos in the world.
He’s got five decades of experience in the drug-trafficking trade, including stints with the Juárez Cartel and the Tijuana Cartel. He was targeted by the United States as a major capo as far back as the early 1980s, before the name of Joaquín Guzmán — El Chapo — appeared in any U.S. records.
He also has a $5 million-dollar bounty on his head from the U.S. State Department.
What he doesn’t have is accumulated prison time. Unlike El Chapo, El Mayo has never seen the inside of a jail cell. Unlike El Chapo, he’s not a household name on either side of the border. And unlike El Chapo, he is at large, free to operate.
Perhaps that has something to do with another thing the two Sinaloa capos don’t have in common. El Mayo never embarrassed the federal government by escaping from prison twice. Hence he didn’t face the all-in manhunt that El Chapo did from July 11, 2015, to Jan. 8, 2016.
His real name is Ismael Zambada García. He was born in 1948 in a community called Álamo in the Sinaloa state capital of Culiacán. He’s been a drug dealer since he was 16.
He was there with the Guadalajara Cartel, the first major drug-trafficking organization in Mexico, that dominated the trade in the 1970s and 1980s. Under its umbrella were some of the biggest family names in Mexican organized crime — Caro Quintero, Beltrán Leyva, Carrillo Fuentes and Arellano Feliz.
For a longer version of this article, in Spanish, click here.
After the capture of Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo in 1989, the Guadalajara Cartel split into three — the Sinaloa, Juárez and Tijuana Cartels. Zambada has been involved with all three, especially as part of the triumvirate running the Sinaloa Cartel. The other two Sinaloa capos are El Chapo and Juan José Esparragoza, alias “El Azul.”
El Mayo made a name for himself thanks in part to his close ties with Colombian cocaine-trafficking organizations. More recently he’s emerged as the major figure in heroin trafficking. U.S. State Department files recognize El Mayo as “one of the most powerful drug-traffickers in Mexico, capable of transporting many tons of cocaine, marijuana and heroin.”
Since 2003, a D.C. court has had a warrant out for his arrest for drug trafficking.
Although El Mayo is identified as a co-leader of the Sinaloa Cartel along with El Chapo and El Azul, his activities are not limited to that organization. According to the U.S. State Department, El Mayo operates independently along the Pacific Coast, in Cancún and in the Nuevo León city of Monterrey.
His reach is extensive. “The Zambada García organization can receive many tons of cocaine from Colombians,” reads a 2003 report from U.S. authorities. “It utilizes a variety of methods to transport the cocaine, including airplanes, trucks and automobiles. (It) controls contraband cocaine in cities in Arizona and California, as well as Chicago and New York.”
But his operations with the Sinaloa Cartel are also massive.
As recently as January 2015, a California court accused Zambada García and two of his sons of trafficking “enormous” quantities of methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana to the United States. This charges resulted from an investigation begun in 2011 of a small-time operation in the border city of Chula Vista, California.
“It soon became evident that the drugs were being supplied by the Sinaloa Cartel, with Ismael Zambada in charge,” the FBI report reads. “The case turned into a massive investigation.”
Another complaint out of Texas for violation of the RICO act was aimed at the Sinaloa Cartel as an organization, and it named both El Chapo and El Mayo as its leaders.
EL Mayo has something else in common with El Chapo — both granted one, and only one, interview in a clandestine setting. In El Mayo’s case, the interviewer was the veteran journalist and publisher of Proceso magazine Julio Scherer.
During the interview, which took place in 2010, El Mayo confessed that he was “panicked” at the idea that one day he may be locked up. But just as EL Chapo told Sean Penn that the drug trade would survive him (“This will never end”), Ismael Zambada shared a vision with Scherer that came to the same conclusion:
“One day I decide to turn myself in, so they can shoot me. My case has to be an example, a warning. So they shoot me and euphoria breaks out. But at the end of the day, we all know that nothing has changed.”
— With reporting by T