A former farmer with extensive agricultural and botanical knowledge, Zambada began his criminal career by smuggling a few kilograms of drugs at the time, then increased his gang's production of heroin and marijuana while consolidating his position as a trafficker of Colombian cocaine. When drug lord Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo was arrested in 1989, his old organization broke up into two factions: The Tijuana Cartel led by his nephews, the Arellano Félix brothers, and The Sinaloa Cartel, run by former lieutenants Hector Luis Palma Salazar, Adrian Gomez Gonzalez, Ismael Zambada García, and Joaquin Guzman Loera (El Chapo). By then, the three Sinaloa Cartel drug lords controlled the states of Sinaloa, Durango, Chihuahua, Sonora, Nuevo León, and Michoacán.
Zambada is known to head the Sinaloa cartel in partnership with Joaquin Guzman Loera . Zambada is one of Mexico's most enduring, powerful drug lords, has had plastic surgery and disguises himself to move throughout Mexico.
In 2001 the administration of President Vicente Fox launched an offensive against Mexico’s drug trafficking networks. The Arellano Felix Organization (Tijuana Cartel), the largest and most sophisticated of the Mexican cartels at the time, received the brunt of the blows. Taking advantage of the pressure being placed on The Tijuana Cartel, rival drug bosses, most notably Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada García from The Sinaloa Cartel, began to encroach on strongholds in northwestern Mexico. By the spring of 2001, Zambada was embroiled in a full-scale gang war with The Tijuana Cartel.
Known as an accomplished alliance builder, Zambada has historically worked closely with The Juarez Cartel and the Carrillo Fuentes family, while maintaining independent ties to Colombian cocaine suppliers. Zambada has been wanted by Mexico’s attorney general’s office since 1998, when it issued bounties totaling $2.8 million USD on him and five other leaders of the Juárez Cartel.
The Zambada García's organization, The Sinaloa Cartel, receives multi-ton quantities of cocaine, mostly by sea from Colombian sources. After receipt of the cocaine, the Sinaloa cartel uses a variety of methods, including airplanes, trucks, cars, boats, and tunnels to transport the cocaine to the United States. Members of the cartel smuggle the cocaine to distribution cells in Arizona, California, Chicago, and New York.
Currently, Zambada operates primarily in the States of Sinaloa and Durango, but exerts influence along a large portion of Mexico’s Pacific coast, as well as in Cancun, Quintana Roo, Sonora, Monterrey and Nuevo Leon.
Ismael Zambada has been featured on the TV appeal series America's Most Wanted, and the FBI is offering up to $5 million USD for information leading to his capture.
On October 20, 2008, some of his relatives were arrested in Mexico City on drug trafficking charges: Ismael's brother, Jesus "The King" Zambada, along with Ismael's son and nephew. His son, Ismael "El Mayito" Zambada Jr. is currently being sought for conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance in the United States. His other son, Vicente Zambada Niebla, was arrested by the Mexican Army on March 18, 2009.
His wife Rosario Niebla Cardoza, brother Jesús, sons Vicente, Serafín, and Ismael, as well as his four daughters, María Teresa, Midiam Patricia, Mónica del Rosario and Modesta play an active role on narcotics' distribution and money laundering.
Ismael Zambada relies on currency shipments to move drug proceeds across the United States-Mexico border.