The son of one of Mexico’s most-wanted drug traffickers has been “flipped” by U.S. prosecutors as part of a plea deal in Chicago federal court, the U.S. Justice Department announced.

High-ranking Sinaloa cartel lieutenant Jesús Vicente Zambada-­Niebla, also known as “El Vicentillo” or “El Mayito” after his father, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, pleaded guilty a year ago to helping direct a vast drug trafficking operation that smuggled “multiple tons of cocaine” into the United States.

According to the plea deal unsealed Thursday by U.S. attorneys, Zambada-Niebla, facing life in prison, will be eligible for a lesser sentence in exchange for cooperating with the government. Prosecutors also said the 39-year-old agreed not to challenge a $1.37 billion forfeiture judgment against him, assets that U.S. officials said could include cash, real estate, businesses, vehicles and other property.

“Zambada-Niebla admitted that between May 2005 and December 2008, he was a high-level member of the Sinaloa Cartel and was responsible for many aspects of its drug trafficking operations, ‘both independently and as a trusted lieutenant for his father,’ for whom he acted as a surrogate and logistical coordinator,” the plea agreement stated.

The U.S. statement did not indicate whether Zambada-
Niebla gave up information that helped lead to the capture of Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán on Feb. 22 in the Mexican resort of Mazatlan.

With Guzmán in custody, Zambada-­Niebla’s father, one of Mexico’s most famous traffickers, is among the leading contenders to succeed him, but Guzmán’s sons also are thought to be competing for that role. The revelation that Zambada-Niebla is now a U.S. informant could worsen any power struggle within the Sinaloa organization, still viewed as Mexico’s wealthiest and most powerful criminal group.

Mexican authorities arrested Zambada-Niebla in 2009, though the circumstances of his capture remain murky. His attorneys have said he was already working as a U.S. informant at that point — providing information on Sinaloa rivals — and was taken into custody after a meeting with agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration at the Sheraton hotel in downtown Mexico City.

Zambada-Niebla was extradited in February 2010 to face charges in Chicago, where the Sinaloa cartel has been a dominant presence and where federal prosecutors last year designated Guzmán the city’s “public enemy number one,” a title last held by Al Capone.

The plea agreement unsealed Thursday offered a peek into what Zamaba-Niebla might have experienced growing up as a drug lord’s son.

Zambada-Niebla also admitted that he and his father, as well as other members of the Sinaloa Cartel, “were protected by the ubiquitous presence of weapons,” and that he had “constant bodyguards who possessed numerous military-caliber weapons,” according to the U.S statement.

“On multiple occasions, Zambada-Niebla arranged for the payment of bribes to local, state and federal law enforcement officials in the Mexican government, for the purpose of facilitating the Sinaloa Cartel’s narcotics trafficking business,” it read.