Who Is Former Sinaloa Cartel Leader “El Rey” Zambada and Mayo’s Brother? Criminal Past and Life as a Corrido Composer

Interview with former cartel boss covers corruption, violence, family tragedies, and unexpected career change to corrido composer.

In an unexpected interview with renowned Mexican music producer Pepe Garza, former Sinaloa Cartel leader Jesús Reynaldo “El Rey” Zambada García opened up about his past involvement in organized crime and his new career as a composer of narcocorridos detailing the narco world.

The 62-year-old brother of infamous Sinaloa kingpin Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada spoke at length about his 2008 arrest in Mexico City, his 12 years behind bars, and how he discovered his talent for songwriting while imprisoned. Once a top capo in Mexico’s most powerful drug cartel, Zambada García now sports a new look consisting of a cowboy hat, sunglasses, a blue shirt, and a thick mustache.

His candid revelations provide a rare insider’s perspective on the Sinaloa Cartel’s operations and his family’s leadership role.

Zambada García Claims 2008 Arrest was Murder Attempt Ordered by Rival Cartel

Recounting his dramatic capture in Mexico City’s Lindavista neighborhood on October 20, 2008, Zambada García asserts that the operation led by Mexico’s Federal Investigation Agency (AFI) was in fact a failed assassination plot orchestrated by the rival Beltrán Leyva Cartel.

According to Zambada García, AFI agents arrived at his safehouse without identifying themselves and immediately opened fire. He realized that sicarios working for the Beltrán Leyvas had infiltrated the police unit with the aim of killing him.

Showing remarkable composure, Zambada García instructed his own gunmen not to return fire so as to avoid further bloodshed. He then contacted commanders in the Mexico City police department, who he had on his payroll, to request backup and safe passage.

However, the Beltrán Leyva hitmen foiled this plan by photographing Zambada García and sending the image to their boss as proof of his capture. This prevented the Mexico City police from orchestrating his release.

Zambada García was arrested along with one of his sons and later imprisoned at the maximum security Altiplano penitentiary near Mexico City, where the Sinaloa Cartel maintained significant control. He believes this saved him from being killed, as he likely would have met a violent end in a local Mexico City jail or the federal lockup in Matamoros, Tamaulipas.

El Rey' Zambada was captured in 2008 (Infobae Mexico / Jovani Perez).
El Rey’ Zambada was captured in 2008 (Infobae Mexico / Jovani Perez).

12 Years in Mexican and US Prisons, Family Tragedies During Incarceration

The younger Zambada brother spent approximately 12 years incarcerated in Mexico and the United States from the time of his 2008 arrest until his release in 2020.

He endured long stints in solitary confinement and suffered immense personal losses while behind bars, including the murders of two sons and a nephew. Despite these hardships, Zambada García refused to cooperate with authorities and provide information on the Sinaloa Cartel’s operations and leadership.

However, after being extradited to the US in 2012, Zambada García reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors that required giving testimony against his former associate, notorious kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

His cooperation with the US government likely reduced his prison sentence, allowing for his conditional release in 2021 after serving 12 years. Zambada García remains under supervision in the US and claims he has not seen his brother El Mayo since 2007.

Boasting of Controlling Mexico City Airport, Corrupting Officials

Never expressing remorse, Zambada García boldly admitted to bribing officials throughout the Mexican government during his heyday as a Sinaloa leader.

He claims to have maintained extensive influence over Mexico City International Airport, using insider connections to smoothly transport drug loads undetected. His corrupt ties extended to the Mexican Attorney General’s Office (PGR), the Mexican Federal Police, and various other agencies.

Recently testifying against former top Mexican security official Genaro García Luna, Zambada García repeated his assertions of paying millions in bribes to García Luna’s close associates in exchange for unimpeded Sinaloa smuggling operations.

His statements reinforce the widespread impunity and deep-rooted corruption that have enabled Mexican cartels to thrive while weakening public trust in institutions.

El Rey Zambada was one of the main witnesses in the trial against Genaro Garcia Luna at the Brooklyn courthouse. (REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg)
El Rey Zambada was one of the main witnesses in the trial against Genaro Garcia Luna at the Brooklyn courthouse. (REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg)

Finding His Musical Voice Behind Bars, New Career as Corrido Composer

Despite his formidable status in the criminal underworld, Zambada García traced his beginnings as a songwriter to his time locked up at Mexico’s maximum security Altiplano prison.

He was inspired by his cellmate Armando Valencia, leader of the rival Milenio Cartel, who used corrido composition to pass the time in confinement. Zambada García discovered he had an innate singing talent that attracted positive attention from fellow inmates.

During one Christmas prison celebration, he crooned for over four hours straight. This motivated him to try his hand at writing original corridos.

His first song was “El Sombrero de Lado,” a tribute to his brother El Mayo, praising his exploits throughout their native Sinaloa. Zambada García was amazed when his unaltered lyrics were recorded by the popular group Los Intocables del Norte, marking the start of his songwriting career.

Now on supervised release in the US, Zambada García has collaborated with norteño band Tosco to record his self-penned narcocorridos. He plans to chronicle his experiences in the drug trade through music.

Remarkably, the former drug lord has transitioned into an unlikely second act as a corrido composer, achieving the prison redemption that often animates the genre’s storylines.

Speculation on What Comes Next for El Rey

Zambada García finds himself in uncharted territory as he adjusts to life off probation following over a decade behind bars. Several intriguing possibilities arise regarding what comes next for the ex-capo.

He could maintain his low-key lifestyle in the US under witness protection, focusing solely on music. But the temptation to resume his influential role within the Sinaloa leadership structure may prove too powerful to resist.

Given his firsthand knowledge, Zambada García would be a valuable advisor in the cartel’s evolving drug distribution strategies to elude US and Mexican authorities. On the legal front, he may still face charges in Mexico stemming from his criminal reign.

For now, Zambada García seems content inhabiting his new identity as an artist away from the perilous narco wars. Yet his future direction remains uncertain. Will the former Rey del Corrido now sing a righteous tune or return to his lawless roots? His next chapter has yet to be written.