Top Mexico trafficker claims he was DEA informant

By Tim Gaynor

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - A top Mexican drug trafficker awaiting trial in Chicago is claiming that he has immunity from prosecution as he was working all along as a confidential informant for U.S. agents -- allegations the U.S. government denies.

Jesus Vicente Zambada-Niebla is the son of Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, the right-hand man of Mexico's most wanted criminal, Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman who leads the powerful Sinaloa cartel.

Regarded as a major trafficker in his own right, "El Mayito" or the "Little Mayo," was arrested two years ago in Mexico City. Extradited to the United States last year, he is now in jail awaiting trial in a U.S. federal court in Chicago in February next year.

The younger Zambada, who is charged with cocaine and heroin trafficking, is claiming he was an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and was given immunity from prosecution at the top level of government.

Zambada is charged with trafficking cocaine and heroin, and running bulk cash profits back to the cartel, which the indictment alleges ran one to two tons of cocaine a month through the Chicago area. The indictment also names Zambada's father, Guzman and others.

One of a slick new generation of Mexican traffickers, dubbed "narco juniors" south of the border, Zambada's extradition was hailed by the Justice Department as one of the most significant in years.

But court documents filed by his lawyers in late July argue that a deal was struck between the DEA and Sinaloa cartel attorney Humberto Loya in 1998, granting Loya and top cartel chiefs immunity for providing information about their rivals.

Zambada claims the agreement was "known and approved" by the Justice Department and cartel leaders and is seeking to have all charges tossed arguing he took over from Loya the role of "primary liaison on behalf of the Sinaloa Cartel with the United States government" in 2008.

A snappy dresser far from the brash Mexican cowboy style of his father, Zambada claims to have met with regional directors of the DEA for Latin America and Mexico at a hotel in downtown Mexico City shortly before his arrest where he received guarantees of his immunity from prosecution.

Zambada "was specifically told that he would receive immunity, not only under Loya's prior agreement, but as an agreement with him personally and approved at the highest levels of the government," his counsel said.

U.S. government officials in Mexico declined to comment on Zambada's allegations. U.S. prosecutors have denied that Zambada had "public authority" granting him immunity, and they have until September 9 to file a response with the court.

Allegations that Mexico's most powerful cartel cut a deal with U.S. officials, if proven, could be potentially embarrassing for the U.S. government.

Raging drug violence has claimed more than 40,000 lives since Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office nearly five years ago and sent troops to crush the powerful cartels.

Several top capos of the rival Arellano Felix Organization, better known as the Tijuana cartel, and the Gulf cartel, which smuggles drugs to south Texas, have been gunned down or extradited to the United States to stand trial.

Despite vicious infighting among Sinaloa cartel factions and some prominent cartel arrests, Guzman and "El Mayo" Zambada remain at large, running trafficking empires that smuggle tons of cocaine from Colombia to Mexico by 747 cargo aircraft, submarines, boats and tractor-trailers, and then on to drug users in the United States.

The business is so profitable that it catapulted Guzman into the Forbes list of the world's billionaires in 2009, with a net worth pegged at around $1 billion.

Both Guzman and El Mayo are believed to be in the Sierra Madre mountains of northwest Mexico, where they run their trafficking operations.

By contrast, the younger Zambada is confined to a cell in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago, where he complains that he has no access to outdoor recreation and suffers chronic stomach problems.

(Additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by David Bailey)

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