Jose Angel Rivera Zazueta, AKA El Flaco, sanctioned by the US Department of Treasury for fentanyl trafficking

Washington accused Rivera Zazueta of "having worked closely" with the Chinese chemical transport company Shanghai Fast-Fine Chemicals to manufacture fentanyl.

On Monday, January 30, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned Culiacan drug trafficker Jose Angel Rivera Zazueta, alias “El Flaco,” who is considered one of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada’s top lieutenants, for fentanyl trafficking.

Washington accuses Rivera Zazueta of “working closely” with Chinese chemical shipping company Shanghai Fast-Fine Chemicals, “which has shipped various precursor chemicals, often with false labels, to drug trafficking organizations in Mexico for the illicit production of fentanyl destined for U.S. markets.”

OFAC imposed economic sanctions on Shanghai Fast Fine Chemicals in December 2021. The US Treasury also sanctioned fellow countryman Nelton Santiso Aguila and another Guatemalan trafficker, Jason Antonio Yang Lopez.

OFAC took action against all three for engaging in activities or transactions that have materially contributed to or posed a significant risk of contributing to the international proliferation of illicit drugs or their means of production.

According to the Treasury statement, Rivera Zazueta’s network operates globally, with nodes in the United States, Mexico, South and Central America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia.

The United States claims that he imports chemicals from China into Mexico that are subsequently used to manufacture synthetic drugs, such as fentanyl, MDMA, crystal meth, 2C-B, and ketamine.

Fentanyl has flooded the streets of the United States and caused an epidemic with lethal consequences with 107,622 deaths from poisoning or overdose in 2021 (REUTERS / Shannon Stapleton)
Fentanyl has flooded the streets of the United States and caused an epidemic with lethal consequences, with 107,622 deaths from poisoning or overdose in 2021 (REUTERS / Shannon Stapleton)

Rivera Zazueta is also believed to be responsible for moving large quantities of cocaine from Colombia to the United States, Spain, Italy, Guatemala, Mexico, and other countries in Europe and Central America.

According to the bulletin, today’s sanctions result from “ongoing efforts by U.S. agencies to curb the importation and distribution of illicit fentanyl in the United States” and were coordinated “closely” with the Mexican Executive.

The head of US diplomacy, Antony Blinken, stressed that the country is determined to confront fentanyl drug traffickers, “including exposing them and preventing them from accessing and using the international financial system.”

“Illicit fentanyl has led to unprecedented overdose deaths in the United States, and most of these drugs come from Mexican cartels, including the Sinaloa Cartel, which use precursor chemicals from East Asia,” said Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian Nelson, quoted in the statement.

Under Monday’s sanctions, the U.S. properties of both Haitian politicians are blocked, and their transactions and businesses are prohibited.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 100,000 Americans died from overdoses in 2021 and that two-thirds of those fatal overdoses involved synthetic opioids.

Operation Falco

Sinaloa Cartel in Italy (Guardia Di Finanza)
Sinaloa Cartel in Italy (Guardia Di Finanza)

In 2019, the so-called “Operation Falco,” an investigation led by Italian police, helped unravel the modus operandi by which the Sinaloa Cartel attempted to bring tons of cocaine to the old continent through an Italian criminal organization, the most powerful drug distributor in Europe.

At the time, the trial of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the most famous leader of the criminal organization, had already begun, and US authorities were about to sentence him to life imprisonment for his involvement in 10 drug trafficking and money laundering offenses.

The Sinaloa Cartel, however, remained the same. The investigation by Italian authorities found that the criminal organization set its sights on the country to find new routes from the Americas and expand its presence in the European Union.

A large part of the drugs arriving in Europe from Latin America is transported on ships arriving in large ports where it isn’t easy to check the contents of each container. Sinaloa wanted to look for another route, not precisely by sea. The plan for its incursion into Italy involved transferring drugs in private airplanes that crossed the Atlantic Ocean and landed in small ports south of the Italian peninsula. Once there, the plan was for the drugs to be redistributed to other parts of Europe.

The Sinaloans chose Catania, a city on the eastern coast of Sicily. In this Italian region, the mafia was born because they had an international airport there. Still, above all, there they found the most important thing for their business: an official willing to help.

Thanks to an informant, the cartel’s intentions reached the ears of the Organized Crime Investigation Group (GICO), the anti-mafia unit of the Italian financial police in Catania. In less than three months, Captain Pablo Leccese identified the main figures of the Sinaloa Cartel in Italy: Guatemalans Luis Fernando Morales Hernandez, alias “El Suegro,” Daniel “Tito” Esteban Ortega Ubeda and Felix Ruben Villagran Lopez.

The relationship with El Mayo Zambada

Sinaloa Cartel in Italy (Guardia Di Finanza)
Sinaloa Cartel in Italy (Guardia Di Finanza)

The Catania-Fontanarossa airport official who helped them was only identified as “Don Señor.” GICO learned that the drug traffickers were arranging a cocaine flight from Colombia. The same informant also discovered the identity of the Sinaloa leader who ran the Catania cell: Jose Angel Rivera Zazueta, “El Flaco,” originally from Culiacan, Mexico, and a top lieutenant of Ismael El Mayo Zambada, one of the current leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel, in Italy.

“El Flaco” was about to meet with “Don Señor” to plan the logistics of the flight from Colombia and the distribution of cocaine to various buyers who would come to pick it up in Italy. Rivera Zazueta landed in Catania on June 1, 2019, and checked into the luxurious seaside Romano Palace hotel. The next day they met with the rest of the partners at the hotel’s restaurant.

The plan consisted of carrying 385 kilos of cocaine in a plane that took off from Mexico to Cartagena (Colombia), where it was loaded with cocaine. It then stopped in Cape Verde, the westernmost point of Africa, to refuel and fly to Catania. They were met by “Don Señor,” who took the drugs in a vehicle to avoid customs and head north.

In Italy, the drugs would be sold to the ‘Ndrangheta, a mafia organization with more than 30,000 affiliates and a wealth far exceeding the GDP of countries like Estonia and Slovenia. In 2013 it had a turnover of 53 billion euros, more than Mc’Donalds and Deutsche Bank combined. Italian authorities estimate that it currently controls around 80% of the cocaine entering Europe. “It is the most powerful Italian mafia at the moment, with a very important role in international drug trafficking,” said Michele Riccardi, a Transcrime investigator.

It was then that the Central Anti-Drug Directorate, a police body that coordinates anti-drug operations in Italy, decided to intervene in the Sinaloa Cartel’s operations by infiltrating two agents undercover as drug traffickers: Rodriguez and “El Cholo.” They were joined by an undercover officer from Colombia’s Anti-Narcotics Directorate, nicknamed “Lucas,” who also posed as a drug trafficker.

On January 16, Ortega and Villagran flew to Verona to meet with Jalisco-born Salvador Ascensio Chavez, alias “El Arquitecto,” an important cartel figure who came from Mexico to oversee the sale. There they met with “Don Señor,” carrying the order.

The Italian Financial Police, who were monitoring both groups, and with the help of infiltrators who helped the drug traffickers arrange the cocaine shipment, arrested Ortega and Villagran in Verona. They were charged with international drug trafficking and distribution.

On December 15, 2021, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) revealed details of the Sinaloa Cartel’s intentions: the 385 kilograms were a test run to be followed by more tons, as in previous years Joaquin Guzman Loera, “El Chapo,” had trafficked.