A U.S. federal grand jury on Friday indicted a Gulf Cartel leader suspected of overseeing the syndicate’s criminal operations in and around Matamoros.
Rafael Cardenas Vela, 38, faces drug, money laundering and document fraud charges.
The two most serious charges – conspiracy to possess, deliver and import more than five kilograms (11 pounds) of cocaine and more than 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds) of marijuana – each carry a sentence of 10 years to life in prison, a fine of up to $10 million and up to five years of supervised release, upon conviction.
Cardenas – known variously as “El Junior,” “Comandante 900” and “El Rolex” – also faces one count of money laundering and two counts of using fraudulent documents. He was the only party charged in the indictment issued Friday in Brownsville.
The government also moved to force Cardenas to forfeit $20 million dollars, a house in Rio Hondo and a house in Brownsville. The forfeiture would take place if he is convicted.
The house in Rio Hondo is listed as 35698 Farm-to-Market Road 106 in the Latina Country Estates. The house in Brownsville - 1312 Bluewing Circle in the Lakeway Subdivision - is listed under the name of Emilio Villarreal and Laura Capistran. The Monitor attempted to contact the homeowners listed but was unable to speak with anyone.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement led an operation in October that led to Cardenas’ arrest in Port Isabel. Municipal police there pulled over Cardenas’ Ford F-150 pickup as part of a traffic stop and took him into custody without incident.
Once seen as the Gulf Cartel’s heir apparent, Cardenas is the nephew of infamous Gulf Cartel leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen and co-leader Antonio Ezekiel “Tony Tormenta” Cardenas Guillen.
The Mexican military arrested Osiel Cardenas in 2003 in Matamoros. He is serving a prison term in the United States. Antonio Cardenas was killed by the Mexican military on Nov. 5, 2010, in Matamoros after a day of firefights.
Rafael Cardenas and other members of the Gulf Cartel purchased bulletproof vehicles, automatic weapons, grenades, homemade cannons and body armor that the syndicate used to further its operations and carry out its ongoing struggle with the rival Zetas, according to court documents.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched a sweeping crackdown on his country’s entrenched criminal organizations in December 2006, dispatching thousands of soldiers to Mexico’s northern frontier.
From then until early October, nearly 43,000 were killed in the nation’s drug war, according to congressional testimony by Rodney G. Benson, chief of intelligence for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Even Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño – long critical of state and federal leaders who he said played loose with their definition of “spillover” violence from Mexico – acknowledged earlier this month that the shooting of one of his deputies amounted to bona fide spillover.
That incident, which stemmed from a botched drug transaction and kidnapping, is directly tied to the Gulf Cartel, the sheriff has said.
Court records identify Rafael Cardenas as one of the principal leaders of the Gulf Cartel, which is listed as a criminal enterprise headquartered in Matamoros that imports, warehouses, transports and distributes tons of cocaine and marijuana from Mexico to the United States.
The indictment further accuses Rafael Cardenas of working with current Gulf Cartel leader Jorge Eduardo “El Coss” Costilla Sanchez and others in managing drug distribution cells in the U.S that acted as smaller units within the Gulf Cartel and were present in Brownsville, McAllen, Houston and northern U.S. cities.
The Gulf Cartel would move the drug proceeds back to Mexico and used hidden compartments in vehicles to hide the currency going south and the drugs coming north, according to the indictment. During the regular course of business, members of the syndicate would use call signs to conceal their identities. Cardenas Vela has been identified as El Junior, Comandante 900 and El Rolex.
Court records allege Rafael Cardenas directed the payments of money and gifts to various individuals in law enforcement in Mexico. Documents on file with the court also confirm a previous report by The Monitor identifying him as the “plaza boss” – the chief of operations for a specific area – in San Fernando, Tamps, since 2000.
Located some 80 miles south of Brownsville, San Fernando has made grim headlines in the past two years. In 2010, authorities found the bodies of 72 migrants inside a warehouse in the city’s rural area. In early 2011, authorities discovered 193 bodies in several mass graves, also in a rural area. Mexican authorities have attributed the slayings to the Zetas, the former enforcement wing of the Gulf Cartel that has since become its worst enemy.
After his stint as boss in San Fernando, Rafael Cardenas was moved to Rio Bravo – across the border from Donna – and finally became embroiled in an internal struggle for control of Matamoros after the death of his uncle Antonio Cardenas.
The younger Cardenas assumed control of Matamoros in March 2011.
Ildefonso Ortiz covers law enforcement and general assignments for The Monitor. He can be reached at (956) 683-4437.
Feds describe suspect's ferocious rise to cartel power
By Dane Schiller
This house in Brownsville, Texas, is subject to forfeiture as part of the money laundering case against Rafael Cardenas Vela. Photo: Brownsville Herald, Paul Chouy / © 2011 Paul Chouy, www.paulchouy.com
The rising nephew of imprisoned Gulf Cartel king Osiel Cardenas Guillen allegedly used grenades and homemade cannons to battle his way to the top of the family drug-trafficking business before his recent arrest in Texas, where he hid from U.S. agents and underworld rivals.
New revelations about just how powerful U.S. authorities believe Rafael Cardenas Vela had become before his capture were made public Friday in a federal indictment returned by a grand jury in Brownsville, just across the Rio Grande from the very turf he is accused of controlling.
Authorities contend Cardenas Vela, 38 - also known as "Rolex" or "Commandante 900" - and other top-level cartel bosses managed cocaine and marijuana distribution cells throughout the United States, including the Texas cities of Houston, Brownsville and McAllen.
They also say Cardenas Vela bribed members of Mexican law enforcement in exchange for information and protection.
"Agents have made it a top priority to bring stability and security to this border region," said Jerry Robinette, agent in charge of investigations for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "Holding those responsible and accountable for these crimes is the first step."
Uncle pleaded guilty
The tall, long-haired Cardenas Vela is described as quickly rising in the ranks of the cartel on the heels of his uncle Osiel Cardenas, the cartel's infamous leader. Osiel Cardenas was extradited to Houston, where under heavy security he pleaded guilty last year and agreed to tell authorities all he knew in exchange for leniency.
He is due to be released in 14 years.
Friday's indictment states that the younger Cardenas Vela oversaw portions of the vicious, protracted war against the cartel's criminal rivals, known as the Zetas, for control of key smuggling corridors for pushing drugs into Texas and farther north into the United States.
In addition to the homemade cannons and grenades, they used automatic weapons and armored cars.
Power struggle ensued
After his other uncle, nicknamed "Tony Tormenta," was killed in November 2010 in a battle with the Mexican military, Cardenas Vela fought a power struggle within the cartel, and ultimately won in 2011.
He is accused of moving tons of drugs and making tens of millions of dollars, and is charged by the indictment with drug trafficking and money laundering.
He also is accused of fraud relating to the passport and immigration permit he allegedly used to sneak into the United States from his native Mexico.
Cardenas Vela was arrested in October in the town of Port Isabel, located near the southernmost tip of Texas, as he and three bodyguards drove unarmed to South Padre Island.
At the time of his arrest, Cardenas Vela looked less like a cartel gangster than he did a country-club member, decked out in loafers and pink shorts.
Authorities said he offered to cooperate in exchange for a chance at leniency, requesting a deal similar to the one reached with his uncle. Sources familiar with the investigation said he quickly began discussing his crimes.
Cardenas Vela had been living in a 3,100-square-foot home in the Rio Grande Valley. He had all-terrain vehicles, wave-runners and a loaded Dodge Charger, as well as other vehicles.
He avoided scrutiny by keeping nothing in his name, including the large rural home in the town of Rio Hondo and a smaller house in a Brownsville subdivision.
His melon-colored home, which featured an extravagant marble poolside bar, was surrounded by walls and sits on several acres stocked with llamas, horses and other animals.
The indictment notes that authorities intend to seize about $20 million from Cardenas Vela, as well as his homes.
Loads of enemies
Authorities have not said how they learned Cardenas Vela was in the United States, but noted that he'd made enemies in his own organization, as some gangsters were jealous of the power he'd attained and the fact that he sometimes hid out in Texas while they faced full-time heat in Mexico.
"The arrest of Rafael Cardenas Vela highlights the tremendous work our agents do throughout the Houston division," said Thomas Hinojosa, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Houston division, which includes Brownsville.
"DEA agents, along with our law enforcement counterparts, are committed to protecting the citizens along the southwest border by ridding their neighborhoods of drugs and drug traffickers alike," he said.