By DANE SCHILLER
Copyright 2010 Houston Chronicle
July 29, 2010, 12:21AM
Former Mexican drug lord Osiel Cardenas Guillen is out of hiding for the first time in nearly four years, having reported to a U.S. medium-security prison to serve a comparatively comfortable sentence negotiated by his attorneys.
Unlike some other major drug cartel figures, Cardenas avoided the harshness of the tomb-like Supermax in Colorado, where inmates are locked in cells and rarely see the sun.
Instead, records posted Wednesday show he is checked in at the United States Penitentiary, Atlanta, where he can walk the razor-wire-surrounded facility to go to meals, the library or recreation time. Up until now, he had been in custody in secret locations for security reasons.
Inmates at the 108-year-old facility wear khaki uniforms, are counted at least five times a day, can let their hair grow to any length and have access to a salad bar, according to the inmate handbook.
It is the place that in the 1980s housed Mariel Boat Lift Cubans who staged an infamous riot.
Cardenas' whereabouts have been kept secret since he was extradited to the United States in January 2007.
Even his sentencing in Houston was kept private from the public and guarded by federal marshals.
Documents related to his plea agreement were sealed "in perpetuity" by a federal judge, but he avoided a high-security lockup and received other considerations as part of the agreement.
Cardenas was the chief leader of the Gulf Cartel as it pushed tons of cocaine into the United States and made millions of dollars. He pleaded guilty to an array of crimes, including pointing an AK-47 at the heads of two U.S. federal agents caught on the streets of his hometown in the Texas-Mexico border city of Matamoros.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons' website notes that the 43-year-old Cardenas, known as inmate 62604-079, has a release date of Nov. 1, 2028. His home is among the 2,032 inmates considered to be lower-risk prisoners.
"In a medium-security facility, they can go from one place to another," Bureau of Prisons spokesperson Traci Billingsley said. "You have some freedom of movement."
Some details unknown
Exactly where Cardenas is staying, including whether he'll be in some sort of solitary area or have cell mates, is private information, she said.
The Gulf Cartel boss before him, Juan Garcia Abrego, is locked away in the legendary Supermax, where he is serving multiple life sentences. Garcia went to trial and took his chances with a jury rather than make a deal.
While as a gangster Cardenas was known to have an arsenal of equipment, such as helicopters, gold-plated automatic weapons and a bulletproof bomber jacket, he now has restrictions on his everyday existence. Guidelines note he can have one pair of shoes, three pair of pants and three pair of underwear.
Most of his mail will be screened by prison staff, with the exception of letters sent to the media and government officials, such as the president of the United States or a governor.
Aircraft seized in Seattle opens crack in secrecy
In his deal with the U.S. government, imprisoned Mexican drug cartel king Osiel Cardenas Guillen surrendered a $1.3 million helicopter dubiously parked in Washington state — the first public clue his massive syndicate shuttles cocaine into the Great White North.
A judge in Houston ordered the AS350 B3 helicopter — the same type to land for the first time on Mount Everest's summit — be forfeited, part of a deal in which former Gulf Cartel boss Cardenas must hand over $50 million and tell what he knows about drug crimes.
Unlike millions in cash he's forked over in the Texas-Mexico border city of Brownsville — the heart of the cartel's home turf — the helicopter was seized in Spokane close to Canada, and it provides yet more evidence that Cardenas is offering up information on people who did business with his empire.
According to court records, Cardenas concedes buying the aircraft with drug proceeds and keeping it in other people's names, even though when it was imported and purchased from Japan, he was in a maximum security prison in Mexico.
He never set eyes on the aircraft with tail number N61EH.
Agents interviewed people coast to coast, and likely in Canada and Guatemala.
Eurocopter calls the copter a high-performance craft for hot climate and high altitude.
"As the matter is still under investigation, we are unable to confirm or discuss any other details of the case," said Lloyd Easterling, spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, which has the bird.
The same goes for the $27 million in cash Cardenas gave up in 10 installments.
Secrecy is the standard in the Cardenas prosecution. He privately pleaded guilty and was sentenced behind locked courtroom doors in Houston. Prosecutors have not granted a single interview about the case since he was extradited from Mexico in 2007.
"They are looking for all the people, all the assets, and they don't want them to suddenly disappear," said Larry Karson, a retired Customs Service agent, now a criminal justice lecturer at the University of Houston Downtown.
"The feds don't want to talk about it, because the moment they do the chances of assets disappearing increases exponentially," he said.
A Houston Chronicle review shows that until February, the helicopter was registered to a Canadian company .
U.S. agents interviewed people associated with the helicopter as recently as last month in Washington and as far back as four years ago in New York, where they questioned people about why the aircraft was making unauthorized fights into Mexico.
Staff Sgt. David Goddard, of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, said Mexican cartels do business with Canadian traffickers that use helicopters. Cocaine goes north and potent Canada-grown marijuana goes south to be sold in the United States, he said.
"We have gangs that will deal with the Mexican cartels, but they will go down there and deal with them," he said.
Last year, a Canadian helicopter pilot hanged himself in a Spokane, Wash., jail rather than face prison for trafficking.
Not in his name
None of the helicopter documents is in Cardenas' name, though the aircraft blazes quite a paperwork trail. Interviews and records indicate it was quickly owned or operated by at least five companies in the United States and has been based out of Canada, Guatemala and perhaps the Bahamas.
A helicopter salesman, speaking on the condition his name not be printed, said he spoke with agents in Washington a few weeks ago. He said that in 2006, the aircraft was sold by his firm to a brokerage company.
"We were only told it was going to Texas," he recalled. "It was a strange sale, I'll tell you that."
"When you sell a helicopter or an airplane, you kind of know who is buying it and what they'll use it for; that was not the case with that helo. In this case, it was very vague."
Eagle Helicopters of Spokane imported the helicopter, which sold it to Allied Aircraft Sales and Leasing, registered in Delaware, according to records. From there it went to Paradise Island Helicopters, which did business in Florida before being exported to Guatemala, a refuge for cartel figures fleeing Mexico's military. Then, in 2008, it was registered in Canada, again to a company named Allied.
At one point, federal agents came to Serge Gasparini's home in New York. They were looking for his daughter, owner of Paradise Island Helicopters.
"So all of a sudden, these FBI agents happened to come to the door," he recalled. "They had these questions about this helicopter making unscheduled flights to Mexico," he continued. "She said, 'I know nothing about it.' "
Her now ex-husband had put the business and helicopter in her name, Gasparini said.
Reached by the Chronicle, Trevor Moore said it was "effectively sold years and years ago, leased" to a man from McAllen, and he hadn't seen it since. He couldn't immediately recall the man's name.
Karson, the retired customs agent, said smugglers will go to extremes to cover their tracks.
"One of their problems is the paper trail of aircraft, so they'll play Three Card Monte with purchases and sales trying to conceal true ownership," he said.