McAllen, Texas — A federal judge has rejected a plea agreement struck between prosecutors and a member of a Zeta kidnapping ring implicated in at least five Hidalgo County abductions.
Although Jose Alfredo “Gordo Maciso” Rodriguez had admitted in May to playing a role in one of the kidnappings that ended in the safe release of the victim, U.S. District Judge Randy Crane said Wednesday he still intended to hold him responsible for another case that ended in a brutal slaying.
Under federal sentencing guidelines, Rodriguez was allowed to withdraw his guilty plea and is now scheduled to take his case before a jury in June.
Crane’s decision came one day after he imposed a life sentence on another member of the group — Luis “Comandante Cua Cua” Avila Hernandez — for organizing the 2008 kidnapping of a Weslaco drug smuggler.
Avila and several armed accomplices forced 29-year-old Daniel Ramirez from a north Weslaco convenience store Aug. 21 of that year and held him hostage at a Mission ranch before ultimately smuggling him into Mexico.
Federal prosecutors allege that kidnapping and those with which Rodriguez has been charged were all part of a scheme to extend the Zetas’ influence north of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Throughout fall 2008, though, top leadership in Reynosa sought to expand the organization’s control of southern Texas by taxing drug smugglers operating in the Rio Grande Valley. Those who refused were targeted for abduction by Avila, Rodriguez and their accomplices.
Rodriguez pleaded guilty to one count of kidnapping stemming from the September 2008 abduction of a man who was beaten with hammers and rifles before ultimately being released for a ransom of $40,000 and two vehicles.
Another of Rodriguez’s alleged victims wasn’t so lucky.
The cell kidnapped Sergio Arturo Zepeda on Oct. 7, 2008, and tortured him for several hours, seeking a load of cocaine they believed he had. At one point, the men allegedly electrocuted Zepeda until he was foaming at the mouth, Crane said Wednesday.
“To quote the words of the kidnappers, he was then ‘smoked’,” the judge said. “In my understanding, that slang means his body was burned.”
Ramirez, too, met a grisly fate after the kidnapping cell targeted him.
Witnesses testified at Avila’s trial in January that the group tortured the Weslaco man for several hours in hopes of securing a ransom from his family before putting him in an oil drum and dousing him with acid.
Crane sentenced Daniel Cavazos Reyes — another participant in that abduction — to 20 years in prison Wednesday, citing the less significant role he played.
Throughout his sentencing hearing, Cavazos maintained that he was not a member of the Zetas and had only met the kidnappers while fixing one of their cars. The men pressured him into participating in Ramirez’s abduction and forced him to hold a gun, he said. During the attack on the convenience store, Cavazos’ weapon went off and struck one of the members of the cell.
“I have accepted responsibility for my actions,” Cavazos said in Spanish. “I know I made a mistake, and I want to pay for my mistake.”
In all, federal authorities have charged 11 men in connection with the kidnapping ring. Five have been convicted. Two more are in custody and are awaiting trial.