The Sinaloa Cartel’s Right-Hand Man: Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada

In March 2009, Mexico released the List of Mexico’s 37 Most Wanted Drug Lords. In the years since, 36 of the drug lords on this list have been tracked down and arrested–an incredible undertaking considering just how dangerous these men and their cartels are.

Yet someone, the 37th man, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada remains free. Even after all these years, he has never been captured and now stands alone as the single remaining drug lord from the 2009 most wanted list. 

So how did this man, among all the others, manage to avoid capture, and what makes him so powerful? In the article, we will delve into the elusive drug lord’s legacy. 

Ismael Zambada García. InsightCrime

Early Life and Beginnings in the Drug Trade 

Ismael Mario Zambada García was born on January 1, 1948, in El Alamo, Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico. 

More than anything, his birth into this region would help to shape his destiny as a drug lord. Sinaloa is a mountainous region, lush enough to be successful in agricultural production. But alongside the mountains are vast fields, perfect for growing and cultivating opium poppies

These poppies, as the name suggests, just so happen to produce opium–the raw material needed for heroin. Because of this, the region became popular in the already prolific Mexican drug trade

Ismael Zambada Garcia’s family started as farmers, but by 16 Ismael was dealing drugs. He worked his way slowly up the drug pipeline until he was affiliated with the Guadalajara Cartel.

At the time, the Guadalajara Cartel, led by Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo was dominant in the field, providing enormous amounts of narcotics to the United States. In 1989, Gallardo would be arrested, and the formerly powerful cartel would start to crumble. 

Creation of the Sinaloa Cartel 

After the fall of the Guadalajara Cartel, there was a power vacuum left behind. Lower-level leaders saw this as an opportunity, and the former Guadalajara Cartel was split into two factions.

There was the Tijuana Cartel, run by Gallardo’s nephews, and the Sinaloa Cartel, controlled by the trio Héctor Luis Palma Salazar, Ismael Zambada García and Joaquín Guzmán Loera (also known as El Chapo).

Ismael would come to be known as “El Mayo”, a play on his first name. El Mayo and El Chapo would rule the new Sinaloa cartel in vastly different ways. El Chapo was outgoing and media-savvy, while El Mayo preferred to operate in the shadows, keeping a low profile. 

Ismael’s strategic leadership and willingness to explore alliances had his cartel growing at a runway pace. Despite being in a less favorable location than the Tijuana Cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel was thriving. 

Under El Chapo and Isamel’s guidance, the new cartel expanded its reach to the global stage. They didn’t stop with just drug smuggling either. The Sinaloa Cartel dabbled in arms trading, money laundering, and the transport of lower-level drugs like marijuana.  

All of this was possible through the corruption of local law enforcement. In Mexico and other parts of both Central and South America, drug cartels are intricately connected to law enforcement, usually through a combination of money and violence. This allows them to exist without fear of arrest. 

The Sinaloa Cartel grew even more in power and territory. In the early 2000s, the infamously violent Juarez Cartel collapsed. The Sinaloa Cartel swept in and with brutal and bloody efficiency, absorbed much of the Juarez Cartel, both territory and personnel. 

Sinaloa Cartel logo

How Does the Sinaloa Cartel Work?

The Sinaloa Cartel functions by receiving enormous amounts of cocaine from South America, usually Colombia. From there, most of the cocaine is transported to the United States through a number of means. 

The Sinaloa Cartel operates in other countries besides the US. It also deals in other sorts of drugs besides cocaine. However, the American cocaine market is the most lucrative. 

Getting cocaine into America isn’t easy–the cartel uses a variety of transport, including trucks and cars, boats, aircraft, and even tunnel systems. Once the drug has made it into the United States, it goes to distribution hubs such as Atlanta and New York. 

El Chapo’s Arrest and the Disappearance of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada

In the 2000s, things started to heat up for El Mayo.

In 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderón began a full-scale offensive to deal with the rampant issue of the drug cartels. At the time, the Tijuana Cartel was the most notorious, and a lot of the effort was focused there. 

Meanwhile, the Sinaloa Cartel moved in to take over territories held by the Tijuana Cartel. This led to a war between the two. 

The following year, America’s Most Wanted featured Ismael Zambada Garcia, offering a $5 million reward for information about his whereabouts. Mexico was also offering a substantial reward–300 million pesos, or $17,558,851 US dollars. 

In 2009, the aforementioned List of Mexico’s 37 most-wanted drug lords, and other cartel leaders started to fall one by one. Still, El Mayo and El Chapo remained free and in control of the Sinaloa Cartel. 

All of that came to a screeching halt when, in 2016, El Chapo was arrested for the third time. Already a low-profile figure, Isamel went deeper into hiding, eluding capture until he was the last man standing. 

El Chapo after his arrest in 2017

Where is Ismael El Mayo Zambada Now?

Ismael Zambada Garcia has never been captured and his current whereabouts are unknown. 

El Chapo had been arrested multiple times in the past and even escaped from maximum security prisons multiple times. Ismael, on the other hand, has never been arrested. At this point, he is one of the most wanted men in all of Mexico, making him go to great lengths to avoid capture. 

Rumors say that Ismael may have undergone plastic surgery to help conceal his identity, but even with such a drastic step, age is catching up with him. Other reports mentioned that Ismael is ill with diabetes and that some of the control of the Sinaloa Cartel is being passed to the sons of El Chapo. 

Who Runs Sinaloa Cartel?

As of early 2024, Ismael Zambada-Garcia is still in control of the Sinaloa Cartel, but his declining health has made it necessary for him to plan who will lead after him. 

Ismael Zambada-Garcia is 76 years old, and the years of running a cartel haven’t been kind to him. There was talk at one time that he would turn leadership of the Sinaloa Cartel over to other high-ranking drug lords, Rafael Caro Quintero and Miguel Caro Quintero, but this never came to fruition. 

Instead, it looks as though power is slowly being transferred to El Chapo’s sons, known as the Chapitos.


“With Mexico’s ‘Chapo’ back behind bars, Zambada the last capo standing”-Michael O’Boyle and Joanna Zuckerman Bernstein

“Narcotics Rewards Program: Ismael Zambada-Garcia”

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