HOUSTON (AP) — U.S. authorities announced Tuesday they have arrested the head of the Gulf Cartel, one of Mexico's most violent drug trafficking rings.
Juan Francisco Saenz-Tamez made his initial court appearance in Beaumont on Tuesday, said U.S. Attorney John M. Bales. A federal grand jury indicted Saenz-Tamez in September 2013 on three drug and money laundering counts.
Saenz-Tamez, 23, from the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, was arrested by federal agents on Oct. 9 while shopping in the South Texas city of Edinburg.
If convicted, Saenz-Tamez faces up to life in prison.
Roberto Yzaguirre, Saenz-Tamez's attorney, did not immediately return a phone call or email seeking comment.
Michele M. Leonhart, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said Saenz-Tamez was the newest leader of the Gulf Cartel following the 2013 arrest of former leader Mario Ramirez-Trevino.
"He moved steadily up the cartel ranks, working as a lookout, record keeper, plaza boss, and finally its leader. Thanks to the quick actions of DEA and our local partners, we were able to identify and safely arrest Saenz-Tamez while he was in the United States," Leonhart said in a news release.
Saenz-Tamez does not appear on the U.S. State Department's list of Mexican narcotics fugitives or the Treasury Department's list of significant foreign narcotics traffickers. However, the DEA said its investigation revealed Saenz-Tamez's leadership role.
Wendell Campbell, a spokesman for the DEA's office in Houston, said the cartel's leadership has seen various changes since Ramirez-Trevino's arrest.
His arrest "started a fragmentation where there has been no sense of strong stability, no consolidation of power. They have been fragmented. Basically the cartel is looking for strong leadership," Campbell said.
The cartel's fragmentation, Campbell said, has been due to several reasons, including internal and external fighting and arrests by Mexican authorities.
"We have been watching his progression ... and when an opportunity came up with him being on this side of the border, we took the opportunity and grabbed him," he said.
Saenz-Tamez has not been a targeted cartel leader in Mexico. According to a Mexican federal official, Saenz-Tamez did not have a known criminal record in Mexico. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the subject. Asked who the Mexican government considered to be the Gulf cartel's current leader, the official said the government avoided getting into those discussions.
Despite its leadership problems, the Gulf Cartel continues to control an important swath of cocaine and marijuana trafficking along the Texas-Mexico border.
Sherman reported from Mexico City.
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