The up-and-coming nephew of imprisoned Gulf Cartel king Osiel Cardenas Guillen is in U.S. custody after being arrested in deep South Texas, where he had decked out a luxury home, concealed his identity and was hiding from both the law and his fellow Mexican underworld rivals.
Rafael Cardenas Vela was wearing pink shorts and loafers while being driven to South Padre Island by his bodyguards when their pickup was pulled over by police, who were working with federal agents and had been tipped to his whereabouts.
Cardenas, apparently 38 years old, admitted to traveling under another man's passport as well as an immigration permit to enter the United States, and that for years he has smuggled marijuana and cocaine, according to an affidavit made public Tuesday.
His arrest is seen as especially significant, as he is believed to not only have climbed the ranks of the family business but have been a possible protégé of his infamous uncle, convicted in Houston and locked away in the Supermax prison in Colorado.
"He was giving orders," a law-enforcement official speaking anonymously said of the younger Cardenas. "He was coming up, his name was coming up more and more."
Cardenas did not have a private lawyer listed in court records as of Tuesday afternoon, and the court-appointed attorneys for his reputed bodyguards, who also were arrested, declined comment.
No shots were fired as Cardenas and three bodyguards were pulled over by a Port Isabel police officer. Cardenas and his crew were riding in a new Ford F-150 pickup, and were not carrying weapons, drugs or large amounts of cash.
Nothing in his name
Cardenas apparently had avoided scrutiny in the Rio Grande Valley by not keeping anything in his name, including multiple vehicles, a condominium on South Padre Island, a house in Brownsville and a 3,100-square-foot house just west of Rio Hondo - all within about 30 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.
The melon-colored home with an extravagant marble bar by a swimming pool is surrounded by walls and sits on several acres, with llamas, horses and other animals, according to authorities. Among the things being confiscated by authorities: wave runners, all-terrain vehicles, a sport-utility vehicle and a loaded Dodge Charger.
Time apparently had run out for Cardenas, also known as Pedro and Junior. Law enforcement sources told the Houston Chronicle he likely is being hunted by the rival Zetas Cartel, as well as resented by some of his own Gulf Cartel's operatives, who see him as giving orders from the safety of Texas as they took heat in Mexico.
Wants to cooperate
Declarations in the court affidavit by Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent Tomas Salazar indicate the younger Cardenas is interested in cooperating with federal authorities, as did his uncle, as part of a plea agreement for leniency.
Salazar says Cardenas already has admitted to moving drugs into the U.S. as recently as October and that Cardenas described in detail how two years ago he sold a 5-ton load of pot.
He also admitted to agents that he was using a Mexican passport and a valid U.S. visa issued to a man named Pedro Garcia Gonzalez. Cardenas did not have permission to enter the United States. He is being held on charges of conspiring to distribute narcotics and being in the United States illegally.
Two reputed bodyguards, both Mexican citizens, are accused of lying to federal agents about Cardenas. The status of the third, believed to be a U.S. citizen, is not clear.
Cardenas' tenuous ties to Mexico's underworld have included one uncle locked away in a U.S. prison and another, known as "Tony Tormenta," who was killed last year in a firefight with the Mexican military. Another nephew of Osiel Cardenas was shot in the head in 2006 and his body dumped off Madden Lane, near Fort Bend County.
Peter Hanna, a retired FBI agent who investigated the Gulf Cartel for years, said it makes sense that the younger Cardenas would seek safety in Texas.
"I have heard that nieces and nephews of a lot of these people are involved (in family business)," he said. "Every once in awhile you hear of somebody making a clean break, but that is few and far between."
Hanna said that as family members have been killed or imprisoned, Cardenas may have had a tougher time in the cartel underworld.
"If you put on airs, and there is nobody that has your back, they will rat you out in a second," Hanna said.