Key witness against El Chapo is sentenced; may get out in 5 years

Vicente Zambada Niebla is shown off to media after his March 2009 arrest in Mexico.

(CNN)One of the top witnesses to testify against Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman was sentenced Thursday to 15 years by a federal judge in Chicago, but may get out in five years because of time served.

Vicente Zambada Niebla -- who has admitted to passing along orders for murders and kidnappings -- is the son of Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, the alleged current leader of the Sinaloa Cartel.
Vicente Zambada served as a high-ranking leader in the cartel.
    Zambada, known as "El Vicentillo," was arrested in Mexico in March 2009 and extradited to the US in 2010, where he's been behind bars for nearly a decade.
    US District Judge Ruben Castillo gave Zambada credit for time served, and he's expected to serve about five more years behind bars, according to Assistant US Attorney Joseph D. Fitzpatrick.
    Jeffrey Lichtman, an attorney for Guzman, said of the sentence: "I'm sure El Mayo is very pleased with this result."
    During Guzman's trial in Brooklyn, Zambada testified about how he himself had played a role in the Sinaloa Cartel's violent drug trafficking activities. He described paying about $1 million a month in bribes to Mexican officials in order to help move drugs through Mexico into the US.
    Prosecutors said in a May sentencing filing that since Zambada began cooperating with the US government in 2011, his cooperation has been "extraordinary," adding that he aided authorities in helping target members of the Sinaloa Cartel and a rival cartel, which lead to the "charging of dozens of high level targets and hundreds of their associates in indictments throughout the country."
    Prosecutors said in court filings that Zambada's "unrivaled cooperation with the government sufficiently offsets his criminal culpability" to such a degree that prosecutors recommended a 17-year sentence. The former cartel member was facing a maximum life sentence before his cooperation.
    Guzman, who Zambada frequently referred to as "mi compadre," or "my buddy," during his testimony against him, was godfather to Zambada's youngest son and they have known each other since Zambada was 15 years old.
    Zambada testified in January that his responsibilities with the cartel included clandestine meetings with high-ranking members of law enforcement and Mexican military officials who helped facilitate smuggling operations and assured the assignment of "friendly" officers in key regions.
    For their services, the Mexican government officials collected bribes from more than $1 million set aside each month, Zambada said.
    Guzman was found guilty of 10 federal criminal counts, including engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise, conspiracy to launder narcotics proceeds to international distribution of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and use of firearms.
    He faces a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole of leading a continuing criminal enterprise, as well as a sentence of up to life imprisonment on the other drug counts. Guzman is expected to be sentenced on June 25.
    The case against Guzman was built in part on the testimony of a procession of cooperating witnesses, mostly former cartel associates already incarcerated or who have been given new identities and relocated by the US government. Zambada pleaded guilty in April 2013 to federal charges, including conspiracy.
      Fitzpatrick said Zambada played a major role in flooding Chicago with narcotics.
      "Not only has he been brought to justice for his actions, but his extensive cooperation led to charges against dozens of other high-level drug traffickers in courts throughout the United States."