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Imprisoned son of Sinaloa cartel kingpin describes perilous upbringing

April 1, 2018  |  Posted by: Francesca Falzarano
Imprisoned son of Sinaloa cartel kingpin describes perilous upbringing

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Jailed Sinaloa Cartel operative Serafin Zambada Ortiz described his harrowing upbringing, growing up as the son of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, one of Mexico’s most powerful drug lords and the peril often associated with the drug trafficking life in recent letters written to a U.S. federal judge.

The U.S. born son of the Sinaloa Cartel leader was sentenced to over 5-years in prison last week in San Diego Federal Court.

The letters described how the day Serafin Zambada Ortiz turned 2-years-old, a car bomb detonated outside his birthday party.

When he was 9, he and his mother had just left a hotel in Mazatlán to treat an outbreak of the chickenpox, when a group of hitmen stormed inside, and murdered his grandparents, along with his uncle and aunt.

This is considered to be normal when your dad is one of the most powerful drug lords in the world.

The continuous threat of violence limited Zambada’s world as a child, forcing him to move him from place to place under the watchful guard of his mother, at times staying hidden inside while other children played soccer.

“I lived in a golden cage with luxuries that were useless,” Zambada said of his upbringing in the midst of violent narco wars.

Despite his mother’s best efforts to protect him from that world, Zambada found himself eventually joining the family business.

Sinaloa Cartel figures including Ismael “Mayo” Zambada Garcia, Joaquin Archivaldo Guzman Loera, Ivan Archivaldo Guzman Salazar, Ismael “Mayito Flaco” Zambada Sicairos, Vicente “Vicentillo” Zambada Niebla, Serafin Zambada Ortiz, Alfonso “Aquiles” Arzate Garcia. (Courtesy of U.S. Attorney’s Office)

By the time he was 22-years-old, Ortiz was the head of a drug distribution ring and was busted on a wiretap plotting to smuggle large quantities of cocaine and marijuana from Mexico into San Diego. A year later, he was behind bars.

The sentencing of the now 27-year-old occurred over three years after entering his guilty plea in San Diego Federal Court.

The hearing concludes a significant chapter in the long-running, continuing takedown of the Sinaloa cartel, widely considered Mexico’s most powerful trafficking group.

The attempt to dismantle the group from top to bottom — mostly played out in San Diego — has swept up drug distribution networks, smugglers, hit men, high-ranking heads, and money launderers. Many of the prosecutions have been led by Adam Braverman, who is San Diego’s newest U.S. attorney.

For years Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán — the notorious face of the Sinaloa Cartel remained at the apex of the Mexican drug trafficking world— along with his longtime partner and co-leader, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada Garcia — Serafin’s father — who has managed the group behind the scenes.

Guzmán is behind bars Brooklyn awaiting trial on federal charges for leading a massive transnational criminal enterprise.

The elder Zambada remains at the top of the DEA’s most wanted list of fugitives and is charged in an indictment in San Diego with two other sons. The U.S. State Department has offered a reward of up to $5 million for his apprehension.

“El Mayo,” who was originally a farmer, was already a rising star in Mexico’s drug trafficking landscape by the time he had met up with Leticia Ortiz Hernandez in Mexicali in 1988. The two knew each other, and both had grown up in neighboring areas outside of Culiacán, Sinaloa.

Ortiz rejected the advice of her forest ranger father and restaurateur mother to stay out of the drug business and fell in love with the man 15 years her elder. The couple resided in Tijuana, encircled by top players in the narco world.

Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada’s sons, Serafin Zambada Ortiz, alias “Sera,” left, and Ismael Zambada Imperial, alias “El Mayito Gordo,” right. Social Media

According to the San Diego Tribune, ten days after Serafin was born across the border in San Diego, future drug lord Benjamin Arellano-Felix and Amado Carrillo Fuentes — a legendary drug trafficker known as “Lord of the Skies” for his collection of cocaine-smuggling planes — became his godfathers.

Then the peace concluded. War erupted with the Arellano-Felix brothers to take control of the Tijuana plaza. Serafin’s mother took him and his little sister to Culiacán, where they believed it would be safer. A car bomb destroyed that hope.

“From that day on, our lives were never the same,” the mother stated in court documents. “The men that not long before stood up for our children and promised to raise them to be good Catholics were trying to kill them.”

She said several teens were killed in Tijuana just because they had played on the same soccer team as “El Mayo’s” son from a prior relationship.

The brutality persisted the other way, as well and it soon became a vicious cycle of retaliation.

“From 1992 to 2000 the days were difficult because of a bloody, stupid senseless war where many families were destroyed and with a lot of pain in their hearts,” she recalled.

When rivals killed Ortiz’s family members, she hid her family from the world, frequently moving and keeping Serafin out of school. His father dispatched armed guards to live with them.

His mother told Serafin that his grandparents had been murdered in a robbery, but he was starting to realize his family’s unusual status in society. Although he’d notice his father’s photo on wanted posters. Serafin did refer to his dad as someone who provided “love and affection,” and was consistently present in his life.

Overwhelmed with depression and paranoia, Ortiz finally took the kids and went to Phoenix, where Serafin and his sister, Teresa, lived a normal life, went to school, and learned English.

However, that peace ended two years later, when Ortiz’s visa expired, and they were forced to return to the cartel’s stronghold of Sinaloa.

Serafin and his sister went back to Arizona — this time without their mother — to enroll in The Orme School, a prestigious boarding school near Prescott.

One year later, they returned to Culiacán.

Sinaloa’s friend-turned-rival, the Arellano-Felix organization, which had controlled the Tijuana routes under Benjamin’s leadership until he was arrested in 2002, slowly faded from the scene as it became the target of prosecutions in San Diego. Benjamin is in the U.S. serving a 25-years in a federal lockup.

However, soon, the emergence of new rivalries posed new threats, and the children had to once again go into hiding when the Beltran-Leyva Organization broke off from the Sinaloa and a bloody power struggle placed family members in the crosshairs.

This time, the family fled to Vancouver, Canada.

Serafin eventually returned and attended college at the Universidad Autónoma de Sinaloa to study agronomy. Soon after, he was drawn back into the drug world.

“Unfortunately, I returned to Culiacán. I say unfortunately because there is nothing more than the drug trade,” he stated in one of the letters to the judge.

In 2010, he married a girl from a family rooted in drug trafficking. The young couple had two kids.

“It was his way of becoming independent and getting out of the bubble he had always lived inside of,” his mother added.

Authorities have not revealed much information about Serafin’s role in the cartel. Most records in the case are sealed.

He was taken into custody on a warrant in 2013 as he used the pedestrian lanes to cross into the U.S. at the port of entry in Nogales, Arizona.

Zambada pleaded guilty to conspiring to import over 100 kilos of cocaine and over 1,000 kilos of marijuana into the U.S. He also agreed to forfeit $250,000 in drug profits, an amount that has been already been paid off.

On Wednesday, Zambada — permitted to temporarily trade in his jail outfit for a white dress shirt and blue slacks — apologized through an interpreter for his behavior and said he looks forward to moving on with his life and raising his two children “in the best way possible.”

In a letter to the judge, Zambada explained: “In this business, one hurts a lot of people and me, your honor regret having been the cause of so much damage to people. I have learned here that drugs destroy many lives.”

While the judge referred to Zambada’s crime “very significant,” he listed several factors that made a lower sentence reasonable. The judge cited several reasons including his childhood, his “genuine remorse,” the lack of violence in his background and the letters of support from family and friends depicting him as a polite young man. Zambada had originally faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years.

It is not clear why it took so long to sentence Zambada. With time served, he should be out of custody by September, according to his defense attorney Saji Vettiyil.

He intends to finish his college degree and to help his mother with her Mexican lychee and mango farm, possibly importing the fruit to the U.S. market.

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