U.S. authorities detained the Gulf Cartel's leader over Matamoros late last week — a third high-profile cartel arrest in recent weeks.
Court records state Jose Luis Zuniga Hernandez was arrested by U.S. Border Patrol agents Wednesday near Santa Maria, a town along the Rio Grande near the Cameron-Hidalgo County line.
Zuniga, also known as "Comandante Wicho," was found with a .38-caliber handgun and "freely admitted" to be a Mexican national without documents to reside in the United States, a criminal complaint states.
A source familiar with Zuniga said he turned himself in to U.S. authorities, though an exact reason remains unclear.
Zuniga's arrest comes amid fierce infighting within the Gulf Cartel at least since early September, when Samuel "Metro 3" Flores Borrego, the plaza boss for the Reynosa area, was found fatally shot.
Since then, widespread firefights have broken out across the Gulf Cartel's territory in northern Tamaulipas, with much of the bloodshed coming from rivals once loyal to the same side.
"What we're seeing on a daily basis is ... a lot of changes in the Gulf Cartel," said one U.S. law enforcement official. "We just don't know, but what I think everybody agrees on is there's some infighting that's going on and the landscape is changing a bit."
Court records do not indicate Zuniga's role within the Gulf Cartel.
Zuniga has led the Matamoros plaza of the Gulf Cartel since the death of Ezequiel Cárdenas Guillén, better known by his nickname "Tony Tormenta," or "Tony the Storm." Mexican soldiers killed Cárdenas and scores of others in fiery street battles in Matamoros in November 2010.
A U.S. Magistrate Judge in Brownsville unsealed court records in Zuniga's case on Friday. His arrest marks the third Gulf Cartel capo to be detained in recent weeks by federal authorities.
Eudoxio Ramos Garcia, 34, was detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents Thursday at a house in Rio Grande City. Ramos has been identified as the former Gulf Cartel boss over operations in Miguel Alemán, across the U.S.-Mexico border from Roma.
And perhaps the highest profile arrest came in Port Isabel on Oct. 20, when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents detained Rafael "El Junior" Cárdenas Vela.
"El Junior" is the nephew of Osiel Cárdenas Guillen, the former Gulf Cartel kingpin extradited to the U.S. in 2006 and sentenced to 25 years in prison last year. The nephew was considered a rising leader within the cartel.
The Monitor news UPDATE: El Wicho held without Bond
Chains rattled as a man known for his ruthless approach to business shuffled into the courtroom. As he approached the microphone, the man known by many as “Comandante Wicho” glanced toward the entrance and gave a nodding smile to the few gathered there even though none of his friends or family members attended the Tuesday afternoon hearing.
U.S. Marshals stood cautiously as Jose Luis “Comandante Wicho” Zuniga Hernandez took to the microphone in order to speak before U.S. Magistrate Ronald Morgan.
During the hearing, a firm, but respectful Zuniga waived his right to a detention hearing and an examining trial, Morgan granted the motions and ordered he be held without bail.
Zuniga was arrested Friday afternoon by U.S. authorities; however details of the arrest remain unclear. Court records state that he was arrested by U.S. Border Patrol agents near Santa Maria, a town along the Rio Grande near the Cameron-Hidalgo County line.
However, a source outside law enforcement but with knowledge of the case said that Zuniga, his brother, a man named Juan Del Rincon and a fourth unnamed man turned themselves in to the U.S. authorities at the Los Indios International Bridge.
The source also said Del Rincon is either a current or former Tamaulipas police officer. That information couldn’t be confirmed with U.S. authorities; however court records show that at the time of the arrest, Zuniga was in possession of a .38 caliber handgun and freely admitted to being a Mexican national without documents in the U.S.
The source said Zuniga called it quits after a lot of his forces were decimated during the infighting and that he crossed to the U.S. in an effort to save himself, presumably in exchange for cooperation.
One day before Zuniga turned himself in, the two warring factions of the Gulf Cartel, more commonly referred to as the Metros and Rojos, clashed in Control Ramirez, a town near Matamoros and that is known as Wicho’s home base.