United States

Federal Judge Rips Border Wall Talk During Drug Sentencing in Chicago

Chicago Chief Judge Ruben Castillo delivered a blistering rebuke of the Trump administration's border policies Thursday, including a veiled reference to the president himself.

Castillo’s comments came during the sentencing of Sinaloa cartel lieutenant Vicente Zambada, who turned the tables on his former organization and became a star witness for the government. Zambada was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

"Many in Washington want to build a wall, when many of these drugs are coming in in a fashion that a wall will do nothing about," Castillo said.  "If there is a so-called drug war, we have lost it- we have lost it and it’s time for this country to think about doing something differently."

As he prepared to sentence Zambada and give him credit for his cooperation, Castillo noted the president’s criticism of cooperators, when he said of his former attorney Michael Cohen, "It’s called flipping, and it almost ought to be illegal."

"I won’t name who this person is, but someone in Washington said flipping should be outlawed," Castillo said. "Are you kidding me?"

Without cooperation, the judge declared, the justice department would not win as many cases as it does.

"Cooperating witnesses help our country win the war on crime," he said. "Maybe we’ve lost the war on drugs, but we cannot afford to lose the war on crime."

With Zambada standing before him, Castillo said the nation should be spending more money on treatment, and addressing the demand for drugs in the United States.

"Money goes back to Mexico and weapons go back to Mexico to kill other people," he said.  "And not one weapon is manufactured in Mexico-they are all coming from the United States." 

Zambada was once a trusted lieutenant in the organization of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, but his testimony against his former mentor helped secure Guzman’s conviction earlier this year.

The government acknowledged in court filings that during his criminal career Zambada engineered the transport of “multi-ton” quantities of cocaine into Mexico and the United States, utilizing “sophisticated transportation methods like aircraft and submarines, stash locations in multiple countries, violence and threats of violence, and bribery of Mexican government officials.”

Indeed, during testimony during Guzman’s trial, Zambada acknowledged he had relayed orders to have people kidnapped and killed.

"All the people, the hitmen, they would report to me," he said.  "So I was like the boss to them."

Prosecutors conceded that such behavior would normally justify a lengthy term in prison, but cited Zambada’s extraordinary cooperation after leaving the cartel in 2009.

"The defendant and his family are forever at risk due to his cooperation,” they wrote in a pre-sentence filing. "And the fear of retribution will always exist."

Given the chance to address the court, Zambada said he hoped those he had wronged would forgive him.

"I believe that every man, every person, leads his life on the basis of good or bad decisions," he said.  "I made some bad decisions, which I accepted and continue to accept full responsibility for. And which I truly regret."

Castillo lamented the damage drugs have done to American society, and the role Zambada had played. But he cited the defendant’s efforts for prosecutors as "extraordinary."

Prosecutors had asked for a 17-year term, but Castillo sentenced Zambada to 15 years, with credit for 10 which he has already served. In doing so, he ordered that the sentence be modified, to include time the defendant had spent in a Mexican jail. 

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