The Associated Press
Laredo, Texas -- The cherub- faced 23-year-old nicknamed "Cheeks" on trial in this Texas-Mexico border city was a midlevel thug working for drug cartel hit squads, authorities say, but the rare public airing of charges has offered a glimpse into the Mexican Gulf Cartel's U.S. operations.
While authorities have indicted dozens of alleged cartel operatives along the U.S. border, most cases have ended with plea agreements before any testimony that would offer details or confirm suspicions about the cross-border operations that have turned U.S.-Mexico border communities into drug battlegrounds.
But Gerardo Castillo Chavez - indicted in 2008 under the assumed name "Armando Garcia" and known as "Cachetes," or "cheeks" in Spanish for the chubby jowls he sported in early photos before his incarceration - took his case to trial, pleading not guilty and delighting border law enforcement officials who want the operations exposed.
The 15 others indicted with Castillo reached plea deals to avoid going to trial. All were accused of being members of the Gulf Cartel, which set up operations in Laredo and began battling in 2001 with rival Los Chapos for control of the lucrative transportation route that cuts from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, through San Antonio, Dallas and into the Midwest.
Prosecutors accuse the cartel's feared enforcers, known as "Los Zetas," of killing at least seven people in Laredo during a seven-month spree in late 2005 and early 2006. The Zetas rented safe houses, moved drugs and money, and committed kidnappings and assassinations for the Gulf Cartel in Laredo, prosecutors and law enforcement said in interviews and court records.
In at least one killing, hit squad leader Gabriel Cardona Ramirez drained the blood of a victim to offer a toast to Santa Muerte, an unofficial saint considered the patron of drug lords, according to court documents. Cardona is serving a life term after pleading guilty to state and federal charges.
Castillo, by comparison, faces less sensational charges, accused of being part of the squad that killed Jesus Maria "Chuy" Resendez and his 15-year-old nephew in April 2006. Castillo faces up to life in prison if convicted of racketeering, drug and weapons charges; he does not face a separate murder charge.
Resendez had stolen drug loads from the Gulf Cartel and managed to escape one assassination attempt, said Rosalio "Bart" Reta, a convicted hit man who also testified that Castillo was part of the Gulf Cartel's hit squads.
Resendez and his nephew were stopped at a busy Laredo intersection when a hit squad rolled up in a king-cab truck with assassins riding in the cab and lying in the bed, investigators say. The killers sprayed Resendez's truck full of bullets, striking nearby cars and spreading fear that ongoing cartel violence was spilling into the United States. But such killings, while common on the Mexican side of the border, are still almost unheard of along the U.S. side of the border.
Reta, who is serving a 70-year sentence in Texas for his role in the killing of two people there, testified that Castillo bragged about having participated in the hits. Reta acknowledged that he did not see Castillo take part in the killings.
Reta was 13 when he was recruited by the cartel and has admitted to killing 30 people, saying in a 2006 police interview that he felt like Superman after a successful hit and was showered with cash and a luxury car by cartel bosses.
Castillo's attorney, Roberto Balli, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the only evidence tying Castillo to the cartel is testimony from Reta and another confessed hit man, Raul Jasso.
"These guys are psychopaths," he said, noting a lack of physical evidence in the case. "These are assassins. He never met them."
Balli said both men testified in exchange for leniency from prosecutors. In the case of Reta, who was a juvenile during his hit man career, authorities agreed not to charge him in federal court.
Just one witness, Castillo's sister, testified for him. Bertha Castillo Chavez, who lives in Ciudad Miguel Aleman, Mexico, testified Tuesday that her brother was only 14 when the alleged conspiracy began in 2001 and had lived with her and her mother continuously.
She said he did not arrive in the United States until 2008, when he came to work with a brother in Houston. She conceded under cross-examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jose Angel Moreno, however, that she had not known about Castillo's long-time girlfriend in another border city or that he was arrested in a house being used to distribute drugs in Houston.
Closing arguments were expected on Wednesday morning with the jury likely to begin deliberations later that day.