BROWNSVILLE — The first order of business for the Gulf Cartel's San Fernando, Mexico, plaza boss was to stack the deck, he said. That meant meetings with local and federal police, the mayor, and even newspapers and TV.
|Rafael "Junior" Cardenas Vela is testifying against childhood friend Juan Roberto "Primo" Rincon-Rincon|
In continuing testimony Friday, Rafael “Junior” Cardenas Vela described how he ruled over the city in Tamaulipas, where even topless dancers were on the take, paid to spy on drunken players leaking drug-world secrets. As for U.S. authorities, there always was a Border Patrol agent or Customs officer to be bought, he said, adding: “All of them had to work for me.”
The nephew of U.S.-imprisoned Gulf Cartel kingpin Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, testified how he had to “put his own people” in City Hall and police headquarters, and make sure the Mexican newspapers didn't “meddle” or “publish anything of me.”
Cardenas Vela, a heavyset man of 39, is hoping his testimony against cartel rival Juan Roberto “Primo” Rincon-Rincon will save him prison time, laid out the workings of the cartel in a matter-of-fact, at times jovial, tone.
Prosecutors hope his testimony will convict Rincon-Rincon as a high-ranking Gulf Cartel operative who trafficked in a cross-border cocaine and marijuana operation between 2002 and 2011.
His lawyer is trying to show he was just a low-level player who fled for his life after Osiel successor Jorge Eduardo “El Cos” Costilla Sánchez put him in charge of the Rio Bravo “plaza,” or trafficking corridor.
The defense is set to cross-examine Cardenas Vela when testimony resumes Tuesday.
Cardenas Vela seemed unfazed about detailing the underworld to the jury.
“That's the way it is over there,” he told them. “The one in charge of the plaza is the one who is going to control the city.”
That meant a monopoly over every bale of marijuana and brick of cocaine that came through a key zone north of a federal drug checkpoint where frequent leadership transfers made bribing difficult.
Cocaine came from the port city of Tampico in planeloads of 500 kilograms, landing at airstrips Cardenas Vela had carved into the brush of remote ranch and hunting lands.
Caravans of armored Suburbans carried bosses from the northern plazas, lieutenants of Costilla's that he said included Rincon-Rincon.
The highways were cleared for the passage, part of the cooperation that earned the head of a local police force about 100,000 pesos, or $7,800 a month, a low-level officer the equivalent of $388 a week and a member of the media $1,550 to $3,876 monthly.
“Soldiers” were recruited from the police and highway patrol, from the military, and from the street, trained for months in “academies,” and outfitted with weapons and garb that cost about $8,000 each.
The cartel funded mayoral campaigns, “so if you want to change this one in police, this one in traffic, he would be under my orders.”
Marijuana, code-called “nacional,” came by river. Cocaine came over bridges. Illegal immigrants were crossed in separate areas than drug shipments.
“Plazas” were color-coded so as not to reveal goings-on over radio or phone conversations — of which the top guns never partook. The busiest, and most lucrative, ones were by the border: Matamoros, Control, Rio Bravo and Reynosa.
On a giant magnetic bulletin board, Cardenas Vela put pictures of faces in place on the cartel hierarchy starting in 2002, when Osiel ruled over three main divisions led by Costilla, Ezequiel “Tony Tormenta” Cárdenas Guillén, and Heriberto “El Lazca” Lazcano Lazcano.
Tormenta, Osiel's brother and Cardenas Velas' uncle, was assassinated in 2010. Laczano broke off to form the Zetas, turning Osiel's branch of special forces into a ruthless competitor that has since taken over San Fernando and other smuggling areas.
Cardenas Vela and Rincon-Rincon had been childhood friends, but Rincon-Rincon was loyal to Costilla while Cardenas Vela sought to wrest control over a camp he said was pulling stunts, such as stealing armored bank cars, that he said was putting heat on what had been a well-organized drug business..
The board emptied of faces as battles with the Zetas and the Mexican military under Mexican President Felipe Calderón raged in the years leading up to 2011, when both Cardenas Vela and Rincon-Rincon, by then allegedly the Rio Bravo plaza boss, found themselves fleeing to the United States.
Cardenas Vela, caught in a traffic stop in Port Isabel, entered a plea deal in March.
“The government was really after me, chasing me, wanted to catch me,” Cardenas Vela said of his reasons for leaving Mexico. “I couldn't find any place to hide.”
|Osiel Cadenas Guillén|
A would-be successor to lead Mexico's floundering Gulf Cartel took the stand against a childhood buddy and rising drug war opponent Thursday as a blood-soaked rivalry played out in a bid for leniency in a staid U.S. courtroom.
Rafael “Junior” Cárdenas Vela is the nephew of toppled kingpin Osiel Cárdenas Guillén and the assassinated Ezequiel “Tony Tormenta” Cárdenas Guillén.
Cárdenas Vela was frank about hopes that testimony against alleged Rio Bravo plaza boss Juan Roberto “Primo” Rincon-Rincon would land him the low range of a 10-year to life prison sentence.
In testimony Thursday, he recalled how Rincon-Rincon was a neighbor in Matamoros, Mexico, with whom he went swimming in nearby canals and played marbles, at which he said Rincon-Rincon tended to cheat.
The son of a factory worker, he returned to Matamoros after a stint as an illegal immigrant working in U.S. mushroom fields and chicken plants.
His uncle, Osiel, only reluctantly let him join the cartel, where he took over the San Fernando “plaza,” a key trafficking corridor due to its location north of the last major drug checkpoint before the Texas border.
His testimony on Rincon-Rincon's two charges of drug trafficking conspiracy dating back to 2002 was to continue today.
Both Cárdenas Vela, 39, and Rincon-Rincon, 41, fled to the Rio Grande Valley as factional warring within the cartel and the threat of the encroaching Zetas escalated.
Neither hid out very long.
Cárdenas Vela, who had been being watched by U.S. authorities, was caught Oct. 20 in a traffic stop in Port Isabel, across the bay from South Padre Island.
He pleaded guilty in March.Rincon-Rincon, meanwhile, opted at the last minute Monday to back out of a planned plea deal and go to trial.
Richard Zayas, attorney for Rincon-Rincon, pledged to prove his client was a low-level player who got in over his head.
A succession of U.S. federal agents testified how Rincon-Rincon was caught Oct. 26 after he and four others bailed out of a pickup truck near the banks of the Rio Grande.
Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent Moises Gonzalez described being called out late that night to interview someone border agents suspected was a big name in the underworld.
Rincon-Rincon was able to chart the division between Cárdenas Vela and recently arrested rival Jorge Eduardo “El Cos” Costilla Sánchez, to whom Rincon-Rincon was loyal.
That morning, Rincon-Rincon had been in what he thought was a winning skirmish against about 100 of “Junior's” men, only to get word that 100 more were coming to outflank him, Gonzalez said.
Costilla, by cellphone, said it would be days before he could send reinforcements.
Rincon-Rincon, along with alleged fellow plaza boss Jose Luis “Wicho” Zuniga Hernandez, decided to take refuge across the Rio Grande but were caught.
Rincon-Rincon quickly gave up his guise of being a run-of-the-mill unauthorized immigrant and farmer, Gonzalez said.
“He took a deep breath ... and he said, ‘I am Juan Roberto Rincon-Rincon, and I am comandante of the Gulf Cartel,'” Gonzalez remembered. “I said, ‘Thank you. We know who you are.'”