The nephew of the former boss of Mexico's Gulf cartel crossed illegally into Texas to hide from a rival and spent five months running his drug operation from the U.S. before he was caught, a federal prosecutor said Monday.
Rafael Cardenas Vela pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine and marijuana in exchange for the government dropping money laundering and immigration charges.
The 38-year-old mountain of a man with a middle school education and 500 armed men at his beck and call had grabbed control of the cartel's operations in Matamoros, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, in early 2011 after a steady rise under the tutelage of two powerful uncles. But the Gulf cartel had been in turmoil since Mexican marines killed one of those uncles, Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, also known as "Tony Tormenta," in November 2010. Like others who ran afoul of rivals, Cardenas Vela sought refuge in the United States.
Last summer, U.S. authorities began hearing that Cardenas Vela was in the U.S. Through daily emails with subordinates he continued to manage the drug transportation and distribution cells that moved cocaine and marijuana across the border, north to Houston and on to cities deeper in the interior, Assistant U.S. attorney Jody Young said. He made more than $5 million in drug proceeds, the flow of which he also oversaw, ensuring some money went into the pockets of Mexican law enforcement officers as bribes.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen explained that the refuge Cardenas Vela sought would cost him at least 10 years and as much as life in prison. With his plea, prosecutors agreed to recommend that his punishment come at the lower end of the scale. His uncle Osiel Cardenas Guillen, long-time head of the Gulf cartel, made his own deal after his extradition to the U.S. and was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2010. Part of Cardenas Guillen's legal team flanked a shackled Cardenas Vela on Monday.
His attorneys declined to comment following the hearing.
Federal authorities had already been watching a ranch near the South Texas town of Rio Hondo when Port Isabel police officers pulled over a silver Ford F-150 pickup with temporary Texas tags for speeding just after 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 20.
Cardenas Vela, who was in the front passenger seat, presented a Mexican passport and visa in a false name. Once confronted with his true identity, he admitted to being involved in bringing marijuana and cocaine into the U.S. for several years, according to court records.
Two others who were in the truck with him also were arrested. They pleaded guilty to giving false statements and were sentenced to time served in February.
Beginning in 2000, Cardenas Vela spent several years as the plaza boss of San Fernando, a small city about an hour south of Matamoros that sits on an important smuggling corridor. In the drug trafficking world a plaza is a territory, usually centered on a city, where traffickers move their own drugs and also charge a "piso," or tax, on anyone else who wants to use the corridor. Two years ago, Cardenas Vela took over as plaza boss of Rio Bravo, a Mexican border city east of Reynosa that was a major staging ground for the cartel's drugs before they crossed the border.
Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen's death set off an internal power struggle pitting Cardenas Vela and his supporters against Jorge Eduardo Costilla, who had worked for Osiel Cardenas Guillen. In March 2011, Cardenas Vela took control of the Matamoros plaza, but by May he had crossed illegally into the U.S. seeking refuge from Costilla, Young said.
Young said prosecutors were preparing a forfeiture order to seize assets Cardenas Vela purchased with drug proceeds. A house on a quiet Brownsville cul-de-sac was allegedly one such property, though prosecutors did not say whether Cardenas Vela ever lived there.
Hanen scheduled Cardenas Vela's sentencing for June 18.