By Jason Buch
San Antonio Express News
A Zetas gang member who became an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration testified Thursday how he helped authorities thwart attempted killings by the cartel, including a plan to use grenades to fight off police in Laredo, all the while keeping his snitching secret.
Testifying under the false name of Rocky Juarez, the informant told how he provided his DEA handlers with real-time updates on the Zetas and the gang's operations.
Later, when he was ordered to rent a safe house in Laredo for a Zetas sicario crew, the DEA was able to install cameras and microphones in the house to monitor their movements.
It was dangerous work for the informant, who on more than one occasion was held at gunpoint during meetings across the border in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, where the DEA couldn't protect him.
Juarez took the stand Thursday in the ongoing trial of Gerardo Castillo Chavez, who's accused of taking part in killings and assaults in 2006 as part of a drug conspiracy.
Jurors and federal District Judge Micaela Alvarez heard for the first time from a witness who placed Castillo Chavez at the scene of one of the crimes he's accused of.
But it was the informant's testimony of the Zetas' inner workings and the extent to which the DEA has infiltrated the cartel that provided the day's most riveting testimony.
Juarez, who worked first on the trafficking end of the Zetas' operations and later on the muscle end, had unprecedented access to Zetas leaders, testified J.J. Gomez, an investigator for the Webb County district attorney who's attached to a DEA task force.
“Basically, all of the (federal) agencies were in need of him,” Gomez said.
Juarez provided information that broke up attempted killings by the Zetas, and led to the arrests of the two hit men planning the Laredo grenade attack.
He described an incident in 2003, before he began working for the DEA and was in charge of bribing Nuevo Laredo police officers for the Zetas, in which he was severely beaten.
Miguel “El 40” Treviño Morales, now believed to be the Zetas' second-in-command, and his brother Omar “El 42” Treviño Morales thought the informant was working for another cartel and kidnapped him, he testified.
He told jurors how the brothers put a plastic bag over his head and hit him in the stomach. Even after Miguel Treviño Morales said he was satisfied, his brother kept going, the informant testified.
Enraged, the informant said, he got his hands on a baseball bat and hit Omar Treviño Morales. Dozens of Zetas stormed into the room and handcuffed him, the informant said.
“There were 30 guys in line,” he said. “They broke two baseball bats, broke me to pieces.”
Omar Treviño Morales stood over the informant, pulling back the slide on his pistol to show the bullet that would kill him, he testified, when another Zeta boss named Ivan “El Taliban” Caballero Velasquez intervened.
“Taliban came in and said, ‘Do me a favor and don't kill Rocky, because if you kill him, you're going to die on top of him,'” the informant said.
It took the informant almost six months to recover from his injuries. After, he moved to the U.S., where he went to work on the drug transportation end of the Zetas' business. He became a paid source for the DEA in 2004, after his brother was arrested.
In 2006, he was handed over to Gomez, one of two agents in charge of Operation Prophecy, an investigation targeting Miguel Treviño Morales.
The informant fed agents information in early 2006 about an attempt to cross almost 1,000 pounds of pot on the Rio Grande and about a stash house where the Zetas kept cocaine. DEA officials would call in other agencies to make busts, Gomez said, to keep their fingerprints off the operation.
“When we get information like that, we utilize a state or local agency to conduct the seizure, for (the traffickers) to not find out the DEA is involved,” he said.
When the informant's supervisor, Ernesto “Nune” Carreon Vasquez was promoted to oversee the Zetas' sicarios, or hit men, the DEA was able to break up attempted killings, Gomez testified.
However, the big prize came in April 2006 when the informant was ordered to rent the safe house, which the DEA filled with surveillance equipment.
It was home to a crew of hit men run by Gabriel Cardona, 25.
Cardona's crew, made up of U.S. citizens, was one of the most dangerous in Laredo, responsible for six killings in 2005 and 2006, according to testimony and court records.
By keeping the crew and informant under constant surveillance, which Gomez said took dozens of people from state, local and federal agencies, they thwarted their attempted hits and eventually arrested Cardona and several of his crew.
Cardona's now serving 80 years in state prison and has been sentenced to life without parole in federal prison.
Prosecutors say Castillo Chavez, the defendant in this week's trial, was with Cardona and other Zetas when they killed Jesus Maria “Chuy” Resendez, 36, and his nephew Mariano Resendez, 15.
They also allege that Castillo Chavez took part in attacks on Chuy Resendez's older brother Julio Cesar Resendez and another nephew, Gerardo Ramos, as part of the drug conspiracy, weapons and racketeering charges he faces.
Julio Cesar Resendez took the stand and almost immediately pointed to Castillo Chavez, saying he remembered the defendant from a pair of March 2006 shootings when Ramos was hit nearly 20 times and Resendez was shot in the foot.
“This dude that's right there,” Resendez said through an interpreter. “I just remember this dude right there.”
But defense attorneys were quick to point out that when he testified two years ago, Resendez didn't identify Castillo Chavez and that he initially told police someone else was involved.
Defense attorney Roberto Balli went on to accuse Resendez and his brother of being members of the Texas Syndicate prison gang, which the witness denied.