With no explanation, feds transfer Cardenas to top-security Supermax
By DANE SCHILLER
After reportedly enjoying an array of privileges in U.S. custody, the former head of Mexico's Gulf Cartel is now at the so-called Supermax prison among the nation's most notorious criminals — including terrorists, spies and mobsters — and no one is saying what prompted his change in fortune.
"This is the highest security level," Ed Ross, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, said Monday.
Ross refused to say why Osiel Cardenas Guillen, 43, was transferred to Supermax, which is in Florence, Colo. He was sent there last week from a federal penitentiary in Florida, where he'd been for eight months.
Cardenas was convicted in Houston in 2009 after pleading guilty to an array of drug-trafficking charges. He once held a gold-plated AK-47 to the heads of a Drug Enforcement Administration agent and an FBI agent his henchmen caught in a Mexican border town.
An official who requested his name not be published said most inmates sent to Supermax from other penitentiaries had been deemed too violent and disruptive — or had tried to escape.
Mike Vigil, former director of international operations for the DEA, said Cardenas likely was put in Supermax to keep him from using his wealth and power to try to escape.
"He is not a run-of-the-mill prisoner," Vigil said. "He is an individual with enormous wealth who could generate a prison break or bribe prison guards to get back to Mexico."
Federal prosecutors declined to comment on Cardenas' move , as did each of his four defense attorneys.
His new living arrangements are a step down for Cardenas, who reportedly worked out a plea agreement that gave him several privileges in U.S. custody — and will make him a free man no later than 2024.
The 460 inmates at the Supermax facility in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains are locked in one-man cells with double doors.
They eat, shower and sleep in those vaultlike cells. They are let out 10 hours a week to exercise by themselves in slightly larger cages.
Other inmates there include "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski, 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and former FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who is serving a life sentence for espionage.
Also locked up in Supermax is the godfather of Cardenas' Gulf Cartel, Juan Garcia Abrego, who was convicted in Houston in 1996 and is serving multiple life sentences.
Mitchel P. Roth, criminal justice professor at Sam Houston State University, said the Supermax prison is a Spartan place where prisoners are by themselves the entire time.
"Everyone is treated like the most dangerous prisoner around," he said. "You have a lot of very charismatic individuals in the Supermax prison. It is very dangerous to have that kind of prisoner in a general population because of the influence they wield."
Cardenas' prosecution was largely secret. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced behind locked, guarded doors at the federal courthouse in downtown Houston.
The proceedings were sealed from the public for security reasons, officials later said.
Cardenas is best known for being violent and for creating the Zetas enforcement squad, which was initially made up of Mexican military deserters who worked for his Gulf Cartel.
When he was extradited from Mexico to Houston in 2007, the Zetas rapidly became their own criminal gang and introduced beheadings and other extreme brutality in their fight against rival traffickers and government security forces.
Since Cardenas has been in U.S. custody, the Zetas have emerged as the Gulf Cartel's most bitter rival.
Prior to the Florida penitentiary, Cardenas was briefly in a medium-security prison in Atlanta, where prisoners can walk to meals, the library and recreation time.
Additional note of interest: Court faults judge over media access: Locking public out of trafficker's sentencing illegal