MEXICO CITY – A purported top figure in Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel was in police custody Thursday, as authorities extended a cross-border crackdown on the gang that has included the arrest of 755 of its members in the U.S.
Vicente “El Vicentillo” Zambada was arrested before dawn Wednesday at a home in an elite Mexico City neighborhood, said Gen. Luis Arturo Oliver, the Mexican Defense Department’s deputy chief of operations.
The capture demonstrates that Mexico is breaking down crime gangs, President Felipe Calderon said in a Thursday night speech. He described Zambada’s father, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada as “perhaps the most important leader of cartels in Mexico.”
The younger Zambada assumed major new powers in the Sinaloa cartel last year, with control over logistics and the authority to order assassinations of government authorities and rivals, Gen. Oliver said.
“This significantly affects the organization’s ability to operate and distribute drugs,” said Ricardo Cabrera, who runs the terrorism and drug trafficking unit in Mexico’s federal Attorney General’s office.
Last month, President Barack Obama’s administration announced that investigators had arrested 755 Sinaloa cartel members in cities and towns across the United States.
The U.S. is seeking Zambada’s extradition under a 2003 trafficking indictment, but he will have to face charges in Mexico before the request can be considered.
The Sinaloa cartel is alleged to have bribed top Mexican security officials including former drug czar Noe Ramirez, who is accused of accepting $450,000 to tip off cartel leaders to police operations. Ramirez has denied the charges.
Police and military personnel had been closely watching the exclusive Lomas del Pedregal neighborhood where Zambada was arrested after receiving complaints about armed men in cars, Oliver said. They surprised Zambada and five bodyguards and arrested them without a shot, seizing three AR-15 semiautomatic assault rifles, three pistols, three cars, and several thousand dollars in cash.
Paraded in front of reporters Thursday in a black blazer and dark bluejeans, the 33-year-old stared straight ahead, stone-faced. His clean-cut look was a sharp contrast from a U.S. Treasury Department photo released in 2007 that showed him in a mustache and cowboy hat.
His family has long been tied to drug trafficking. Zambada’s uncle, Jesus “The King” Zambada, was arrested last year in Mexico City and accused of helping smuggle cocaine and methamphetamines through the capital’s airport. He also is under investigation for the killing of top police officials in Mexico City.
The other two known Sinaloa cartel leaders at large are Joaquin Guzman Loera, known more commonly as “El Chapo” Guzman, and Ignacio Coronel Villarreal, or “Nacho Coronel.”
Mexican officials issued a $5 million reward for Guzman after he escaped from a prison in 2001 hidden in a laundry truck. Forbes Magazine recently ranked Guzman at No. 701 on its list of the world’s richest people, with an estimated $1 billion fortune.
A U.S. indictment accuses both Vicente and Ismael Zambada of using planes, boats, trucks and cars to move nearly $50 million worth of cocaine from Colombia to New York, New Jersey, Chicago and California between August 2001 and June 2002.
Vicente Zambada apparently rose through cartel ranks after supervising the unloading of cocaine from ships off the Mexican coast and verifying quantities coming from Colombia, according to the indictment.
Mexico’s drug cartels are increasingly on the defensive as the U.S. and Mexico mount a cross-border crackdown.
After taking office on Dec. 1, 2006, Calderon sent thousands of soldiers and federal police to drug strongholds across Mexico in an attempt to bring warring gangs under control.
Cartels, already fighting each other for territory and drug routes into the U.S., responded with unprecedented violence, killing some 8,000 people. About 10 percent of victims were police or soldiers. The rest are believed to be linked to the drug trade, with some civilians caught in the crossfire.
On Thursday, seven people were found dead in western Mexico. They included three victims who were bound, shot and dumped on the side of a highway outside the city of Morelia; three dismembered and headless bodies found in plastic bags in a park in the city of Uruapan; and a police officer shot dead while walking to work in the port of Lazaro Cardenas.
On the sandy banks of a river in the resort of Acapulco, authorities uncovered a shallow grave with four young men who appeared to have been bound and hacked to death with machetes. In a separate incident, a 27-year-old man was shot to death inside a public bus.
The violence is now spilling over into the U.S., where drug-related kidnappings and killings are rising. Obama plans to come to Mexico City next month to discuss with Calderon how the two countries can work together better to confront the problems.