Jose Rodrigo Arechiga Gamboa, who rose in the ranks to lead the cartel’s hit squad, was sentenced to more than seven years in prison early December in San Diego, California.
Jose Rodrigo Arechiga Gamboa wanted to be a pilot in the Mexican military, but he couldn’t pass the physical exam. He had psoriasis, a skin condition, and for that he was deemed inutil a la patria — worthless to country.
Defeated, he turned his attention to an architecture degree, but he dropped out after three years. He needed to support his new wife and daughter.
His childhood friends — the boys he grew up with next door in Culiacán, Sinaloa — had a solution.
Their father was Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada Garcia, and from behind the scenes he ran the most powerful drug cartel in the world.
Arechiga was first tasked with “small errands,” as his attorney put it. But the responsibilities grew over the years, with Arechiga eventually leading the Sinaloa Cartel’s brutal hit squad, dubbed “Los Antrax.”
When Arechiga — now known as “El Chino Antrax” or Chinese Anthrax — was arrested in 2013, San Diego’s then-U.S. attorney called him “one of the highest-ranking Sinaloa Cartel kingpins ever prosecuted in the United States.”
On Thursday — six years after his arrest — Arechiga was sentenced in San Diego federal court to seven years and three months in prison. Considering time already served, Arechiga, 39, doesn’t have much longer behind bars.
The sentence is far lighter than the 10 years to life that he faced under the plea agreement. But it was what both prosecutors and the defense jointly recommended, and U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw agreed was appropriate.
Arechiga has already forfeited $1 million in drug proceeds, per the plea deal, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Sutton.
Little was argued on the record during the brief hearing, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed its sentencing papers under seal. The reason for the yearslong delay in sentencing was not addressed.
Heavy security surrounded the hearing. Attendees, including the dozen family members who came in support, had to pass through a secondary metal detector at the entrance to the courtroom. U.S. marshals were posted around the room and in hallways.
Arechiga’s arrest was part of a massive two-year investigation into the leadership of the Sinaloa cartel, headed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. It began in 2011 as a probe into what was at first believed to be a small-scale drug distribution cell in National City and Chula Vista, according to prosecutors.
It soon became evident the drugs were being supplied by the Sinaloa cartel, and the case ballooned, spreading across many states and countries. Several people were arrested and large amounts of drugs were seized, as well as nearly $28 million in drug proceeds, prosecutors said.
Arechiga was nabbed on a warrant in December 2013 as he got off a flight in Amsterdam. He had been living undercover, using the name of a dead Mexican man, altering his features with plastic surgery and trying to remove his fingerprints, U.S. prosecutors said.
Authorities said he rose through the ranks as a bodyguard in the enforcement cell named after the deadly disease. The hit squad was feared for its brutality and public displays of violence, such as stringing up the bodies of tortured victims on a bridge in Mexico.
The height of the violence occurred in 2008 and 2009, as three cartels — Sinaloa, Beltran-Leyva and Arellano Felix — waged a bloody war.
“During the course of that war he participated in and made credible threats of violence to rival drug trafficking organizations,” Arechiga’s defense attorney, Frank Ragen, said in sentencing papers.
He got his own mention in narcocorridos — Mexican folk songs glorifying the drug world — with “El Chino Antrax” described as an elegant and fit man with a taste for sports cars, yachts and Champagne.
By all appearances, Arechiga comes from a close-knit, respected family.
His father held several positions in Sinaloa government, including commissioner of communal lands, treasurer of state highways and a congressional representative, according to a letter filed to the court by Arechiga’s mother.
She has her master’s degree, and Arechiga’s siblings all have advanced degrees.
But the cartel was next door. Arechiga formed close bonds with the Zambada boys.
“They went to school together. They played together. They participated in sports together. They attended social events together. They grew to be best friends,” his attorney wrote.
Arechiga’s wife wrote in a letter to the court that getting married so young and starting a family “I believe is what forced Rodrigo to look for other options to provide for us.” The options were “more prosperous,” she said, adding “I can’t explain it to you because it was a conversation we never talked about.”
Arechiga was extradited to San Diego in July 2014 and a year later he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to import cocaine and marijuana. In the plea agreement, he admitted belonging to the cartel since 2005 and eventually overseeing a number of the organization’s responsibilities. He acknowledged directly participating in and ordering others to commit violence for the benefit of the cartel.
He has spent the past 32 months in solitary confinement while awaiting sentencing, conditions that have made him suffer auditory hallucinations, lose weight and stay awake much of the night, his lawyer said.
Before being sentenced Thursday, Arechiga, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, expressed his remorse in court: “I’m truly ashamed. … I promise you I will never again go the wrong way. I would like to be able to work honestly.”
When he is released, he hopes to work in construction and home remodeling.
Zambada is wanted on a drug conspiracy indictment filed in San Diego, as well as two of his four sons. One of them has been arrested in Mexico and is awaiting extradition.
A third son was arrested a month before Arechiga. Serafin Zambada Ortiz, born in San Diego, pleaded guilty to a drug distribution conspiracy and was sentenced last year to 5½ years in prison.
The fourth son, Vicente Zambada Niebla, struck a plea deal in Chicago following a 2009 arrest in Mexico. Earlier this year, he became one of the star witnesses in the Brooklyn trial of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman, turning against his father’s partner, the flashier, public face of the cartel.
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