Ismael Zambada García is a Mexican drug lord who managed to stay in the shadows until recently.
During the trial of Joaquín El Chapo Guzmán, it was discovered who the person in charge of the organization is. The Netflix documentary series from 2020, World's Most Wanted, dedicated the first season to Ismael Zambada García.
Ismael Zambada García: World's Most Wanted
The streaming giant premiered on August 5, 2020. The documentary series World's Most Wanted has five seasons, each one dedicated to great criminals wanted by the DEA or the CIA of the United States.
The opening episode is about Ismael Zambada García, known as El Mayo, the real boss of the Sinaloa Cartel. A dark, low-profile, and mysterious character.
After the capture of Joaquín El Chapo Guzmán, the world press and the security forces of the United States were convinced that the great coup had been carried out. They captured the great Lord of Mexican drug trafficking.
However, in the trial that took place in New York and sentenced Guzmán to life in prison, it was uncovered who the real mastermind behind the cartel was. El Chapo was not the leader, just an executor of a higher rung – a very high one, by the way – in the intricate structure of the organization.
At the top is, in fact, Ismael Zambada García, the true boss of bosses.
The Lord Of Mexican Drug Trafficking
Ismael Zambada García has been involved in drug trafficking for more than four decades. He was never imprisoned, unlike his partner, who fell for the third time in 2018. He was extradited to the United States, where he was held in a maximum-security prison.
In the previous two prisons in Mexico, he managed to escape. The second escape, through a tunnel, was thanks to the financial and logistical support of his mentor, Ismael Zambada García - El Mayo.
But how did Ismael Zambada García circumvent the law: El Mayo lives in the mountains, in the Sierra Sinaloa, and rarely leaves his domain. In the Netflix series, three photos of the capo that had never been revealed were published for the first time.
The best-known image of the "Lord," as his subordinates call him, is the one on the file circulated by the DEA, which offered a $5 million reward for any information that may lead to his whereabouts. Another was the cover of the Mexican magazine Proceso in which the capo is seen hugging journalist Julio Scherer, the only one who managed to interview him.
From Washing Truck Wheels To Being A Drug Lord
Little is known about the trajectory of Ismael Zambada García. There are doubts even about his birth date and place, although it is estimated that he was born on January 1, 1948, in El Álamo, Sinaloa, Mexico. However, the great puzzle of his life has some assembled pieces.
The Mexican journalist Anabel Hernández has an extensive professional career that includes publishing the books The President's Accomplices (2008) and Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and their Godfathers (2010). However, her latest work is titled The Traitor. The Secret Diary of the Mayo´s Son (2019), in which she recounts some details of the life of the Sinaloa Cartel boss from a direct source.
She used the diaries of Vicente Zambada Niebla, the eldest son of El Mayo, captured in 2009. She came to them through Fernando Gaxiola, a lawyer from El Vicentillo.
"The one who really introduces him to drug trafficking is the Cuban Antonio Cruz," Hernández said at the presentation of her book. Cruz was a policeman in Castro's Havana and later defected to Los Angeles, where he set up a drug sales network. He was arrested and later escaped to Mexico. There he married El Mayo's sister.
At that time, almost 50 years ago, Ismael Zambada García and his family lived in poverty. El Mayo was in charge of washing the tires of the trucks that entered the sugar mill on the outskirts of Culiacán. But with the arrival of the Cuban, everything changed.
Ismael Zambada García Rises To Power
Although there are no precise dates, it is estimated that in the mid-1970s, Antonio Cruz was an important drug trafficker with connections in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and other cities in the United States.
In 1977 he was imprisoned, and for the first time, the surname of his brother-in-law appears in a criminal file.
El Mayo set foot in Los Angeles and set up a route to Tijuana. From there, he took tons of cocaine from Colombia. He allied himself with the Guadalajara Cartel led by Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo and with the Juárez Cartel, commanded by El Señor de los Cielos, as Amado Carrillo was known.
Ismael Zambada García was ascending and accumulating power until he was in charge of the organization after the death of Carrillo.
By the end of the 1980s, Zambada García had already built an empire after the fall of the kingpins of the Guadalajara, Tijuana and Del Golfo cartels. He unleashed a war against enemies and emerging groups and consolidated his organization: the Sinaloa Cartel.
In 2001 he became associated with El Chapo Guzmán, and with his son Vicente as "owner," he became the leading supplier of cocaine and heroin in the United States.
The Secret Life Of Ismael Zambada García
Ismael Zambada García is rarely seen in public. He lives in the Sierra Sinaloa and "doesn't come down" from there, with few exceptions. He formed a personal army with hitmen who are forbidden to call him by his name. They address him as "Sir" and mention him in the same manner.
"The great man, the Lord who commands, he has organized, he has given instructions on how we train, how we take care of ourselves, the name of the person should never be said. There are protocols everywhere, and we have to respect them", reveals a hitman in the Netflix series, with his face covered, an automatic pistol on his belt, and two bodyguards with long weapons.
The organization that El Mayo outlined is complex, but it is designed to keep itself safe. It consists of various "rings" in a pyramidal structure until you reach the boss.
However, he is known for delegating power to his henchmen. Even at cartel meetings, Ismael Zambada García doesn't give orders in front of everyone. Instead, he steps aside with one member, gives the order, and then gives it to the rest.
There are also no records of his voice. The DEA has not yet been able to record a telephone conversation with Zambada García. "He knows that if he spends a lot of time on the phone, it could be the end of him," reveals the journalist specializing in drug trafficking Jesús Esquivel for the Netflix series.
The statement from El Mayo's interview with Julio Scherer in 2010 said:
"I have my wife, five wives, fifteen grandchildren, and a great-grandson. The six of them are here, on the ranches, daughters of the mountains, like me. The mountains are my home, my family, my protection, my land, the water I drink. The earth is always good, the sky is not."
Ismael Zambada García admits that he felt the army "above his head" four times, but that he managed to escape:
"I fled through the mountains, whose branches, streams, stones, everything I know. They will catch me if I stay still or I neglect myself, like El Chapo. So that we could meet today, I came from far away. And as soon as we finish, I'm leaving."
And he added:
"I'm terrified that they'll lock me up."
El Mayo is constantly on the move in the mountainous region shared by the states of Durango, Sinaloa, and Chihuahua, known as "The Golden Triangle."
The interview took place in 2010, a year after the capture of his son Vicente, whom he avoided talking about. "I cry for him," he simply declared.
The Netflix series details how El Vicentillo, with his father's consent, collaborated with the DEA to bring down El Chapo Guzmán. He got 15 years in prison, with five years of probation. He will be part of the witness protection program when he is released.
Esquivel adds in the documentary series:
"What irony. The father, the largest drug trafficker in the history of Mexico, and his eldest son, protected by the United States government."
The Power Of El Mayo
Although it is a fact that Ismael Zambada García allowed his son Vicente to "hand over" El Chapo Guzmán, his compadre's children were left in his care. In October of last year, when the Mexican army captured Ovidio Guzmán López, the Sinaloa Cartel was deployed in Cualiacán, the state capital.
The hitmen of the cartel went out with all their arsenal through the streets to confront the police and demand the release of Chapo's son. A few days later, Ovidio Guzmán was released. The Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, came out to support the justice's decision:
"We no longer want war. We seek peace."
Not only with the children of his compadre, but El Mayo is also a benefactor and protector to the entire community of Culiacán. Zambada García is often shown as a businessman and has his wife in charge of the firms he would use to launder drug money.
"I dedicate myself to agriculture and livestock. But if I have the opportunity to do business in the United States, I do it," he declared for the magazine Proceso a decade ago.
Until a few years ago, Ismael Zambada García sponsored Christmas celebrations at El Álamo, the ranchería where he was born. One of his daughters owned a daycare center, and his wife was a milk distributor. In some marginalized regions, especially in the mountainous area of Sinaloa, his group offers employment, security, health, and other services.
And so, he gets complicity, silence, and an extensive network of protection. The community works for the cartel. They are his eyes and ears.