Reporting on the Mexican Cartel Drug War

Justice Hidden

Saturday, February 27, 2010 |

Drug kingpin Cardenas’ sentencing hearing was wrongly kept from public view.

Houston Chronicle

Houston, TX - As bad guys go, Osiel Cardenas Guillen is one of the worst: Drug kingpin. Murderer. Enforcer. Money launderer. A modern-day Stalin, according to one retired Drug Enforcement Administration agent.

Over the years, Cardenas' control of the Gulf Cartel drug empire has harmed the lives of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people in this country and in Mexico — and in the most terrible and terrifying ways. From the hundreds who were executed for crossing him and his cartel to the untold thousands whose lives were ruined by addiction to the drugs he sold for profit, the evil wrought by Cardenas and his thugs has been appalling and pervasive.

Cardenas was sentenced to 25 years in a federal prison here Wednesday, but no member of the public was present to witness it. None of this proceeding, held in a federal courtroom, took place within public view. The sentencing hearing, conducted by U.S. District Judge Hilda Tagle, was not listed on the judge's public schedule till after it was completed. It was kept closed without any explanation until after the fact.

Even the terms of the drug kingpin's sentence remain unclear, since most of the prosecution was handled through closed hearings and sealed documents. It is not clear, for example, how much time Cardenas will actually serve.

This is unacceptable. Cardenas deserves no such special treatment.

“There's no reason for holding the Cardenas sentencing hearing in secret, especially when so many high-profile organized crime, drug kingpin and terrorist trials have not been handled this way,” said Fred Hartman, chairman of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association/Texas Press Association legislative advisory committee. “It undermines the public's confidence in the federal court system and makes our government less accountable.”

Indeed it does. Given Cardenas' violent history, concerns about security are understandable. But these can and should be addressed without denying public access to the justice system.

“At a minimum, the public should be entitled to an explanation of why secrecy is being granted,” said Chronicle Editor Jeff Cohen . “That has not happened in the Cardenas case, and it is wrong.”

These are quintessentially public matters. They involve public safety. Public dollars. Even public health and well-being. This very public business must be conducted in full public view.

Now drug lord is sorry

For years, he was the hands-on leader of the ruthless Gulf Cartel, a brutal squad of enforcers that took hundreds of lives and smuggled tons of cocaine.

As Mexican drug kingpin Osiel Cardenas Guillen — whose ruthless Gulf Cartel took hundreds of lives while smuggling tons of cocaine — stood before a federal judge in Houston, he made his first public statement in years, saying he was sorry for his “mistakes,” according to a transcript obtained by the Houston Chronicle Thursday.

“I apologize to my country, Mexico, to the United States of America, to my wife, especially my children for all the mistakes I have made,” a shackled Cardenas said, according to the transcript.

Cardenas, 42, was known for hands-on leadership and bringing a new level of brutality to Mexico's warring underworld with his squad of former Mexico special forces soldiers turned cartel enforcers.

His whereabouts have been kept secret by the U.S. government, and much of the case has been sealed, as was the hearing Wednesday in which U.S. District Judge Hilda Tagle gave him 25 years and ordered he forfeit $50 million.

As part of a plea agreement, he waived a trial and is cooperating with federal authorities. If he is naming names, it is unclear whom he has pointed out.

“I feel that this time that I have spent in jail, I have reflected ... truthfully, I am remorseful,” Cardenas said, according to the transcript, which was unsealed by Tagle.

Fears of an attack against him or courtroom personnel were so high that authorities not only locked and guarded the door at Wednesday's hearing but also didn't list the hearing on the court schedule.

Tagle claimed secrecy was needed to avoid the substantial probability of “imminent danger” to court personnel, U.S. Marshals personnel, other courthouse personnel and the general public.

The sentencing wasn't even noted in the court file until hours later, after deputy marshals had time to sneak him out of the Houston area.

Tagle, the transcript shows, did harshly admonish the fallen drug lord.

“You were a role model for the narco-trafficantes brandishing assault rifles who are not only younger and younger as time goes by, but more brazen. The thirst for power is unquenchable,” she told him.

“Kidnappings, extortion, gunbattles in the streets, a desperate economy, innocence lost, that is your legacy to your country, to our communities on both sides of the border, and to society.”

‘Unconstitutional'

Tagle had denied a request by the Houston Chronicle to observe the sentencing of a man for whom the United States government offered a reward of $2 million for information leading to his capture.

“Let me recite for the record that in spite of all the efforts to ensure that this hearing not be noticed by the news media, I am told that there is a reporter from the Houston Chronicle who is, as I speak, drafting a motion regarding his request to be heard — or to be present during the hearing,” the transcript says.

Jeff Cohen, editor of the Houston Chronicle, called the judge's rationale “unconstitutional.”

“With all due respect to the judge, after reading the transcripts we find her rationale unconstitutional and the prosecutor's requests for courtroom closures to be shameful,” Cohen said. “In many jurisdictions in the last decade, the government has managed to hold successful and safe trials of dangerous and despicable defendants in public. By sealing the Houston process from public view, we are not only letting the thugs know they have a strong position, we are trampling First Amendment right of access in the land of freedom.”

The only observers allowed in the hearing, beside federal prosecutors and the former drug capo's four lawyers, were Cardenas' wife and daughter and a sheriff's deputy who went undercover in the case.

Cardenas had already pleaded guilty in a different secret hearing to drug and money laundering charges as well as to threatening the lives of two federal agents and a Cameron County deputy, who posed as a drug trafficker moving marijuana from Brownsville to Houston.

Before being extradited from Mexico to Houston in January 2007, Cardenas, known as “El Loco” was king of the Gulf Cartel syndicate.

‘Throw away the keys'

Tony Garza, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico who grew up in Brownsville across the Rio Grande from Cardenas' hometown of Matamoros, said he hoped prosecutors got what they needed from the gangster.

“I'd like to throw away the keys to this guy's cell,” Garza said, “but I know that the government was plenty aggressive and got all they felt they could given the charges and their desire to have him cooperate.”

Floyd Abrams, a top First Amendment lawyer, said regardless of what has happened behind closed doors, keeping courtrooms closed breeds distrust.

“The whole notion of a public trial is one that is designed both to protect the defendant against being railroaded and assure the public that justice is being done,” he said. “The rule must be the courtrooms are open, otherwise the public won't understand or often credit the legitimacy of what occurs behind closed doors.”

Drug cartel chief sentenced in secrecy

Behind armed guards and locked doors — in a secret hearing of judicial privacy not even given to some 9/11 terrorists or East Coast mafia dons — Osiel Cardenas Guillen, one of the most feared drug lords in history, was sentenced to 25 years in prison Wednesday.

In a Houston courtroom sealed to the public, he also was ordered to forfeit $50 million, a small slice of his estimated earnings. Cardenas surrendered at least $23 million in cash seizures quietly made over the past year by federal agents.

Cardenas, a 42-year-old native of the border city of Matamoros, Mexico, moved tons of cocaine and made millions of dollars as he ruled the Gulf Cartel drug empire with a viciousness and hands-on style seldom before seen, authorities said.

“Osiel Cardenas Guillen headed one of the most prolific and certainly most violent drug trafficking organizations that Mexico has ever spawned,” said Mike Vigil, a retired Drug Enforcement Administration agent who was based in Latin America as the agency's chief of international operations.

“He ruled very much like Stalin in that he used massive amounts of violence against his enemies both in the government and those that opposed him in other criminal organizations,” he continued.

The famed drug lord has not been seen publicly since he was ushered in shackles into a Houston courtroom in 2007 to be read his rights when he arrived in Texas.

Despite a protest from the Houston Chronicle on Wednesday that the public had a right to be present for the sentencing of one of the most hunted men in recent times — in a case that has cost American taxpayers millions — U.S. District Judge Hilda Tagle kept the hearing closed without explanation.

Cardenas' Gulf Cartel is believed responsible for the murders of hundreds of people in Mexico's drug war.

The hearing, which was guarded by deputy U.S. marshals and security officers, was not even listed on the court's official schedule until hours after it was over.

Secrecy ‘is wrong'

It remains to be seen how much of his sentence Cardenas will serve, as much of his prosecution has been handled via closed hearings and sealed documents. He may also get credit for time already served here and in Mexico.

“We strongly believe that the American justice system should operate in the light of day and not in secret,” Jeff Cohen, editor of the Chronicle, later said. “At a minimum, the public should be entitled to an explanation of why secrecy is being granted. That has not happened in the Cardenas case, and it is wrong.”

What little is known about the proceeding came from an e-mailed U.S. Department of Justice news release that said Cardenas pleaded guilty to threatening to kill two U.S. federal agents that were caught driving through his turf in 1999, as well as a Cameron County sheriff's deputy who was in Texas working undercover as a trafficker moving ton-sized loads of marijuana from Brownsville to Houston.

Cardenas, for whom the U.S. government had offered a $2 million reward, also pleaded guilty to drug smuggling and money laundering.

Cardenas' four lawyers were in the courtroom, as was Jose Angel Moreno, chief prosecutor for the southern district of Texas, and his legal team. Two fashionable women, apparently friends or family of Cardenas, were ushered into the hearing.

Unleashed the Zetas

While Moreno and Cardenas' attorneys all declined to comment after the approximately 25-minute hearing, the top prosecutor later said in the e-mail: “The successful prosecution of Cardenas-Guillen underscores the joint resolve of the United States and Mexico to pursue and prosecute the leadership of the drug trafficking cartels, dismantle their organizations and end the violence and corruption they have spawned.” He would not comment on the secrecy , nor would the U.S. Department of Justice.

As he left the courthouse, chief defense attorney Mike Ramsey added to the secrecy, saying only, “I can't comment on what didn't happen.”

Andrew Weissmann, a former U.S. prosecutor now in private practice in New York, called the closed sentencing “highly” unusual, particularly given the right of the public to access courtrooms: “I've seen guilty pleas under seal. I'm not sure I've ever seen a sentencing under seal.”

Cardenas' biggest claim to infamy is that he created and unleashed the Zetas, a gang of former Mexican special forces soldiers who became his private army and hit squad.

Since Cardenas' capture by the Mexican army during a wild shootout in 2003 and his later extradition to the U.S., the Zetas have raged against their rivals with a reputation for leaving victims decapitated and butchered in operations known for military precision and discipline.

Prison time a question

Cardenas, known by nicknames such as The Ghost and El Loco, surrendered a chance to fight for his freedom at trial in pleading guilty to a reduced number of charges as part of an agreement to cooperate with the U.S. government .

Secrecy — including uncertainty about whether prison time will be served — has been no stranger to the Cardenas case as well as the cases of 14 other Mexican organized crime figures from three cartels who were whisked to the U.S. on the same Boeing 727 in the early morning hours of Jan. 20, 2007.

Among them were two brothers, upper echelon members of the Tijuana Cartel, who agreed to plea bargains within two months of landing. They admitted to roles in racketeering, drug trafficking and the murder or rivals. One got 40 years and the other 30, but the Federal Bureau of Prisons said no one with their names was doing time.

Another player from the Sinaloa Cartel was given credit for time served in Mexico and is to be released in 2016.

Vigil, the former DEA agent, said he remained puzzled why Cardenas was treated in such a veiled manner.

“I have never heard of that for a Mexican drug cartel chieftain,” he said, “nor for individuals in traditional organized crime like John Gotti, Sammy (The Bull) Gravano or any of them, even though they were cooperating.”

Agents seize millions from drug lord’s fortune

U.S. action revealed after Chronicle suit
 
Federal agents have seized at least $26 million from the drug-empire fortune of Osiel Cardenas Guillen — money he appears to have offered up himself as he sat in U.S. custody, records released Friday show.

Nearly two dozen documents were unsealed by U.S. District Judge Hilda Tagle on Friday in response to the Houston Chronicle's legal objections that too much of the case has been handled behind closed doors.

Those documents reveal that agents seized cartel cash between September 2008 and September 2009 and likely were led to the money by Cardenas, once head of the Gulf Cartel.

Extradited to Houston in 2006, he has been held at an undisclosed location for the past three years.

The records do not say where the money was recovered or whether anyone was arrested, only that it was seized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection.

The $26 million is a fraction of as much as $300 million the government is trying to capture from the wealth of the Gulf Cartel, according to a nearly decade-old federal indictment.

Cardenas is accused of drug and money-laundering, as well as threatening two American federal agents and an undercover officer.

His legal team declined to comment Friday, as did the federal prosecutor's office.

Cardenas' trial was canceled without explanation last year, adding to speculation that a plea agreement was being negotiated in order to grant him leniency or other considerations in exchange for his cooperation.

No plea noted

Several documents in the case remain sealed, and it is unclear if Cardenas has pleaded to charges or reached a deal.

But the cash seizures are repeatedly noted in agreed motions signed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Toni Treviño as well as one of Cardenas' attorneys, Michael Ramsey.

“The United States moves to seal this … in order to protect the integrity of ongoing criminal investigations and preserve confidential information,” the motions say.

The Gulf Cartel is based across the Rio Grande from South Texas.

The cartel uses Houston as a chief launching pad for moving cocaine and marijuana into the United States as well as weapons and cash back to Mexico.

Cardenas, convicted of organized crime charges in Mexico, was extradited to the United States in 2006 to face trial in Houston.

Since then, much of his case has been kept out of public view, with Tagle closing the courtroom to a Chronicle reporter and sealing numerous records. Federal prosecutors asked for the secrecy to protect lives and investigations.

Defending right to know

In a motion filed in federal court, the Chronicle argued, among other things, the public has a right to know what has become of charges against Cardenas — for whom the United States had offered a $2 million reward.

The newspaper asked the judge to unseal the records, which she did after prosecutors and Cardenas' own lawyers agreed with making some of the information public.

Tagle said she would review remaining sealed records and make a decision shortly.

Security issues

The other records unsealed Friday delve into security issues. Prosecutors have contended the case against Cardenas should be handled in Houston, rather than Brownsville, where he was indicted, because there isn't jail secure enough to hold him there.

Prosecutors also argued that jurors and courthouse personnel would be in jeopardy in Brownsville, which is just across the border from Cardenas' hometown, Matamoros.

His present location is being protected for continued security concerns, but the court papers indicate he has previously been kept in isolation at the federal detention center in downtown Houston as well as a segregated housing unit at a state prison in Beaumont.

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