Antonio Peña Arguelles was nabbed at his home in the Stone Oak area. He’s suspected of laundering cash for politicos. Photo: Courtesy Photo / SA
My San Antonio News
A man arrested Wednesday in San Antonio laundered money for corrupt Mexican politicians, worked with Mexican drug traffickers and was running for his life from the Zetas cartel, court documents allege.
Federal and state authorities arrested Antonio Peña Arguelles, 56, Wednesday morning at his Stone Oak-area home.
According to a complaint filed by a Drug Enforcement Administration agent, Peña had been hiding out since November, when members of the Zetas killed his brother, displayed his body in Nuevo Laredo and left a threatening banner.
The banner accused Peña and his brother Alfonso of stealing from the Zetas. It went on to blame them for the death of Rodolfo Torre Cantú, a Tamaulipas gubernatorial candidate assassinated in 2010. The allegations against Peña suggest he used San Antonio as a meeting place — and later a hideout.
“This has been a lengthy investigation by the DEA, IRS and Texas attorney general's office,” said Mauricio Fernandez, head of the DEA in San Antonio. “We have been looking at this person for a while. We know he is tied to the Mexican cartels.”
But Peña's relationship with the cartels had soured, according to the complaint.
The day his brother was killed, according to the document, Peña received a threatening text message from Miguel “El 40” Treviño Morales, the Zetas' No. 2 and, like Peña, a native of Nuevo Laredo.
“Don't be an idiot and pay attention to whom you rob from and about that candidate, it was because of the business you have with (Gulf Cartel boss Jorge Eduardo) Costilla, Tomas (Yarrington Ruvalcaba, a former governor of the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas) and Osiel Cardenas (former head of the Gulf Cartel),” the text read, according to the complaint.
“Your brother also told me about the assumed names of the properties you have with Osiel and I also know that they're in Laredo, Texas, and San Antonio.”
A Mexican-born rancher who lives in Laredo and owns a house and invested in a restaurant on San Antonio's North Side, Peña was an intermediary between corrupt Mexican politicians and leaders of the Zetas drug cartel, the complaint alleges.
In 2008, after being jailed for almost two months in Mexico, Peña retreated to San Antonio. Here, he met with Yarrington, who Mexican officials acknowledged last week is under investigation there along with two other former Tamaulipas governors.
Meeting at a house Yarrington rented in San Antonio, the two discussed a financial dispute with Treviño Morales, according to the complaint.
Peña would pick up drug proceeds in Brownsville, Roma, Laredo and Las Vegas, according to the complaint. The document details bank accounts Peña opened in Texas and California that held more than $10 million as well as millions of dollars in wire transfers from a Mexican bank to a U.S. account in Peña's name.
According to depositions taken during Peña's divorce proceedings in 2009, he kept $5 million in a Swiss bank account and owned ranches in northern Mexico worth $10 million.
It was a ranch that brought Peña into contact with the Zetas and their former Gulf Cartel allies, according to the complaint. One of his ranches was south of Nuevo Laredo, straddling a federal checkpoint, and the Zetas paid him a fee to move drugs through his property, the DEA alleges.
Peña's relationship with the Zetas grew, according to the complaint, and he became the go-between for the cartels and corrupt politicians — first a Nuevo Laredo mayor and eventually the Tamaulipas governor.
He moved to the U.S., launched transportation companies here and began moving in circles with politicians and business leaders.
Phil Jordan, former director of DEA's El Paso Intelligence Center, said it can be hard to distinguish legitimate businessmen from those who launder money for Mexican drug traffickers and corrupt politicians.
“The modus operandi is they stay clear of any contacts with the dope dealers, with the cartel members, and behind the scenes they launder the money through legitimate businesses,” Jordan said. “As a result, they join the chamber of commerce, and unsuspectingly to the real businessmen start rubbing elbows and they become friends to the point where they'll even contribute to politicians on this side of the border.”
The feds allege Peña maintained a relationship with the Zetas, with tragic consequences. According to the complaint, Peña and his brother took almost $5 million from Treviño Morales “in exchange for political protection.”
The brothers simply pocketed the money, the complaint alleges, so the Zetas kidnapped Alfonso Peña in November and killed him.
But a source familiar with the incident told a more harrowing story.
The Zetas believed they'd sent a $5 million bribe to Torre Cantú, who in 2010 was running for governor of Tamaulipas, which stretches along the border from Laredo to Brownsville. But Torre Cantú never received the bribe, the source said, and refused to meet with Zetas' representatives.
Considered a shoo-in, Torre Cantú was killed in June 2010 when a convoy of gunmen attacked his motorcade. His brother Egidio stepped in to take his place on the ballot and now is governor of Tamaulipas.
More than a year later, the source said, the Zetas learned of the betrayal and blamed the Peñas. After his brother's death, Antonio Peña abandoned Laredo and again fled to San Antonio.
He faces up to 20 years in prison on the money laundering charge.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Nancy Nowak ordered him held until his Feb. 21 bail hearing.