McALLEN — Federal authorities arrested a Tamaulipas State Police commander and cousin of the state's former governor on federal drug charges filed in the District of Columbia.
|Gilberto Lerma Plata|
Gilberto Lerma Plata, 50, was arrested as he attempted to cross the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge late Friday night, a former federal agent confirmed Tuesday. Lerma, who has U.S. citizenship, is not formally tied to any Mexican drug cartel in a federal indictment unsealed Monday. But he reportedly has had ties to the Gulf Cartel at least since 2002, when a Mexican newspaper quoted Mexican intelligence reports that stated he provided criminals with information on police movements.
Lerma had been serving as the Tamaulipas State Police commander in Miguel Alemán, across the Rio Grande from Roma, upon his arrest, the former agent said. Lerma previously served in the same capacity in Reynosa.
(Manuel Cavazos below)
Lerma is the cousin of former Tamaulipas governor Manuel Cavazos Lerma, an Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, politician who served from 1993 to 1999 and candidate for senator from Tamaulipas in Mexico's upcoming federal elections.
Lerma joined the Tamaulipas State Police after his cousin was first elected governor in the state.
An indictment unsealed Monday accuses Lerma of conspiring to distribute at least 5 kilograms of cocaine and more than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana between Mexico and the United States since 2006.
Agents arrested Lerma as he attempted to cross into the United States to visit his family, which lives in the Rio Grande Valley, the former agent said.
“This is very surprising,” he said of Lerma’s arrest. “I’m hoping it’s not true.”
The indictment was filed under seal in federal court in the District of Columbia in May 2011. In the document, prosecutors state they will seek at least $1 million in drug proceeds that Lerma allegedly collected.
Lerma remains in federal custody. He is set to appear before U.S. Magistrate Judge Peter Ormsby at a hearing in federal court in McAllen on Thursday.
The case was investigated by agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration based in Houston.
Rubén Darío Ríos López, a spokesman with the Tamaulipas attorney general's office, said he had no information about Lerma's arrest.
Spokeswomen for the Justice Department and DEA would not shed further details on the case beyond what already has been unveiled in federal court.
Noe Garza Jr., the Brownsville-based attorney representing Lerma, declined to comment.
A 2002 report in El Universal newspaper said named Lerma as a Gulf Cartel member who used his police ties to provide information on police movements against the cartel. The report outlined how Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, the former Gulf Cartel leader now serving a federal prison sentence in the U.S., had direct contact with commanders of state and federal law enforcement in many of Tamaulipas’ major municipalities.
Lerma's arrest comes less than two months after another person linked to a former Tamaulipas governor has been the focus of a federal investigation in the United States.
Federal authorities arrested Antonio Peña Arguelles in February in Laredo. In a criminal complaint filed in federal court in San Antonio, Peña is accused of funneling cash from the Zetas drug cartel to former Tamaulipas governor Tomas Yarrington, a PRI member who served from 1999 to 2004.
Yarrington has not been charged and denies any wrongdoing or ties to drug cartels.
But two arrests involving men with close ties to former Tamaulipas governors — and high-profile members of the PRI — may raise suspicion of possible political motivation regarding the timing of the arrests.
Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an associate professor of government at the University of Texas-Brownsville who focuses on Mexican politics, said some may see the arrests as politically motivated.
But Correa-Cabrera said she does not necessarily believe the recent arrests are an effort by the U.S. government to shine a favorable light on the National Action Party.
The PAN has held onto Mexico’s presidency since 2000, when it ended seven decades of continuous rule by the PRI. Ahead of the upcoming election, the party of President Felipe Calderón is trailing the PRI in national polls.
She pointed to PRI presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto’s public assertion that he would not shy away from keeping military troops deployed to patrol cities with corrupt police.
“It will have electoral consequences and electoral motivation,” Correa-Cabrea said. “However, I’m not sure the U.S. government is doing this in order to support the PAN in the election.
“The basic interest of the U.S. in Mexico is border security — it’s securing the border. The U.S. does not have any other type of political motivation in Mexico.”