Judge raps Trump, gives lenient sentence to El Chapo star witness

/ CBS/AP

Zambada's shocking testimony on El Chapo

A federal judge in Chicago took a swipe at President Donald Trump's comment last year criticizing cooperators as he handed a lenient prison sentence to a star witness against drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. The judge sentenced Vicente Zambada Thursday to 15 years for his crimes as a logistics chief for the Sinaloa cartel. Zambada's former boss, Guzman, was convicted of criminal conspiracy and drug trafficking in New York last year.

Without his cooperation against more than 100 cartel figures, Zambada likely would have received a life sentence. With time served, the 44-year-old could go free in less than five years. The sentence was less than the 17-year prison term sought by prosecutors, reports the Chicago Tribune.

Zambada, the son of El Chapo's partner, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, reportedly rose through the ranks of the cartel to become one of Guzman's most trusted associates. He was arrested by Mexican authorities in 2009 and extradited to Chicago, where he pleaded guilty to helping run the cartel and began cooperating with federal authorities in 2013, the paper reports.

Drug trafficker-turned-cooperator Vicente Zambada, seen here in 2009 AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo

Judge Ruben Castillo praised Zambada's cooperation. He alluded to comments Mr. Trump made last year criticizing defendants for flipping in criminal cases. Castillo told the hearing, "Are you kidding me?" The judge said those who "flipped" were doing so to cooperate in the interest of justice with U.S. prosecutors.

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In weighing the sentence, the judge said he carefully reviewed Zambada's testimony at Guzman's trial, in which Zambada gave a disturbing account of the violent inner workings of the cartel. The Tribune reports Zambada apologized in Spanish before he was sentenced, saying, "This feeling of regret and repentance has been with me for years."

Prosecutors wrote in a court filing obtained by the Tribune that Zambada has been a "model cooperator" who helped convict Guzman and dozens of other cartel leaders, and said the information he provided helped disrupt a major drug pipeline into the U.S.

After he is released from prison, Zambada will likely remain in witness protection for the remainder of his life, prosecutors said.

"(Zambada) is one of the most well-known cooperating witnesses in the world, and he and his family will live the rest of their lives in danger of being killed in retribution," prosecutors wrote.

First published on May 30, 2019 / 6:54 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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