Zambada is hardly a household name, yet he has become the most wanted drug smuggler in Mexico and is expected to be added soon to the FBI's Top 10 Most-Wanted Fugitives list, U.S. and Mexican drug agents told AP.
Mexico's top anti-drug prosecutor, Jose Santiago Vasconcelos, called Zambada "drug dealer No. 1" and said the fugitive has become more powerful as his fellow kingpins have fallen, including one who was allegedly killed on Zambada's orders.
"With all the other groups, we have captured the leaders," Vasconcelos said at his heavily guarded Mexico City office. "He's the only leader we haven't caught."
Zambada's organization was the target of "Operation Trifecta," a 19-month, U.S.-Mexican sting that ended July 31. Authorities say they collared 240 suspected drug smugglers in the United States and Mexico, seized nearly six tons of cocaine and unsealed U.S. federal indictments against Zambada, his son and his key cocaine distributor.
Errol Chavez, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Arizona division, said the operation confirmed "the scope of (Zambada's) influence in Mexico is legendary," spanning nearly 30 years.
Zambada, the 55-year-old leader of a drug gang based in the Pacific Coast resort city of Mazatlan, has formed alliances with "almost every known drug trafficking group in Mexico," Chavez said.
No one knows exactly how much Mexico's drug trade - or Zambada's sizable share of it - are worth, but the White House estimates about half the $65 billion in narcotics that Americans buy each year comes through Mexico.
Zambada has been charged with organized crime and drug trafficking in Mexico, and a U.S. indictment charges him with conspiring to smuggle cocaine.
Zambada's rise to the top of Mexico's drug ranks began in February 2002, when police in Mazatlan shot and killed Ramon Arellano Felix. The feared enforcer for the Tijuana-based smuggling gang bearing his family's name, Arellano Felix had been on the list of the FBI's 10 most-wanted fugitives.
Chavez and U.S. investigators in Mexico City who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Zambada lured Arellano Felix to his home turf and paid the police officers who killed him, although Mexican officials won't confirm that. Zambada has never been charged in the case.
Zambada got another boost a month later, when authorities captured Ramon Arellano Felix's brother Benjamin, the Arellano Felix gang's operations chief.
The Arellano Felix gang was Mexico's most powerful smuggling syndicate from the late 1990s until the death of Ramon Arellano Felix and the capture of Benjamin Arellano Felix.
Many investigators on both sides of the border speculated that no one drug lord would step up and fill the power vacuum left by a weakened Arellano Felix gang.
But Chavez said Zambada rose to power by winning the trust of Colombian cocaine producers in a way the Arellano Felix gang never could, allowing his organization to move more cocaine into the United States than most other smuggling syndicates.
"There were financial problems between the (Arellano Felix organization) and the Colombians," Chavez said, noting that as the Arellano Felix brothers fell, "bills went unpaid and the Colombians sought other trafficking organizations they trusted more."
"They sought out El Mayo," he explained.
Zambada formed close ties to a Colombian cocaine producing organization believed to be run by twin brothers Miguel and Victor Mejia Munera, U.S. investigators say.
Arellano Felix syndicate smugglers still bring tons of cocaine into the United States via Tijuana. Rather than challenge the rival gang's authority between Baja California and California, Zambada has tightened his control of smuggling routes leading from neighboring Sonora state into Arizona, authorities say.
Chavez said his office is stationing more DEA agents and informants in Sonora and southernmost Arizona in an effort to further target Zambada's group. The DEA also has received special funding for highway billboards between Tucson and Phoenix featuring a wanted poster of Zambada.
Zambada remains a bitter enemy of the Arellano Felix gang, but is close to accused Juarez cartel leader Vicente Carrillo Fuentes and has reached out to Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, a convicted drug lord who escaped from prison and specializes in building drug tunnels under the U.S. border, authorities say.
"El Mayo is more of the businessman, the guy who wants to cooperate and bring people together," Chavez said. "He and El Chapo are very close. They have helped each other become very successful in Arizona."
Originally from Sinaloa state where Mazatlan is located, Zambada got his start as an enforcer and hit man for the Juarez cartel based in the border city of the same name.
Investigators can't agree on when he founded his own group of freelance smugglers. Mexico's attorney general's office still listed him as one of the heads of Juarez cartel's operations in Sinaloa as recently as 1998, but Chavez and other DEA officials said Zambada began working to form his own group in Mazatlan more than a decade ago.
Mexico has taken out several top drug lords over the past two years. Besides the Arellano Felix brothers, police and soldiers collared Osiel Cardenas, the alleged head of the gulf cartel, in March. Last month, they caught up with Armando Valencia, one of the
alleged heads of a drug gang based in the central state of Michoacan.
Chavez said the DEA is watching family members Zambada has in the United States, but there's no evidence he has crossed the border. In August, Mexican special agents stormed homes in Sonora state's capital, Hermosillo, arresting one Zambada associate.
Chavez said authorities were "one step away from El Chapo and two steps away from El Mayo."
"It came down to timing," he said. "Our timing wasn't right."
By Will Weissert