BROWNSVILLE, Texas – Rafael Cardenas Vela has pleaded guilty to participating in a long term drug conspiracy, United States Attorney Kenneth Magidson announced today along with Jerry Robinette, special-agent-in-charge for Immigration and Customs Enforcement – Homeland Security Investigations (ICE-HSI) and Javier Peña, special-agent-in-charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Cardenas Vela, 38, is the nephew of Osiel Cardenas Guillen, convicted of federal drug charges by the Southern District of Texas in 2010, and Ezequiel “Tony Tormenta” Cardenas Guillen.
“This conviction represents our continuing efforts in working with our law enforcement partners to weaken the cartels influence on drug trafficking and other related criminal activity within our district and along the Southwest border,” said Magidson. “We remain steadfast in our resolve and will continue to vigorously prosecute those individuals that seek to circumvent the laws of the United States.”
Specifically, Cardenas pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine and more than 1,000 kilograms marijuana. Cardenas admitted to being a part of this conspiracy from at least in or about January 2000 until his capture by United States authorities on Oct. 20, 2011.
During his plea, Cardenas Vela – aka Junior, Commandante 900 and Rolex – admitted he occupied a position as a principal leader of a criminal enterprise, known as the Gulf Cartel, headquartered in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico, which imports, warehouses, transports and distributes ton quantities of cocaine and marijuana from the United Mexican States into the United States.
“Today’s guilty plea by Cardenas is one more example of Homeland Security Investigation’s commitment to partner with the Rio Grande Valley law enforcement community to attack the command and control structure of the Gulf Cartel and to minimize its ability to use our community as a safe haven,” said Robinette.
Cardenas Vela and others helped manage and maintain cocaine and marijuana transportation and distribution cells established in the United States that acted as smaller operational units within the larger organization. Cells were located in various cities including but not limited to Houston, Brownsville and McAllen, Texas, as well as in northern cities throughout the United States. The Gulf Cartel, as led in part by Cardenas Vela, also collected and transported millions of dollars in United States currency which represented the proceeds from the distribution and sale of cocaine and marijuana in the United States. Once the drug proceeds were collected at various points within the United States, the money would be transported to Mexico to further the aims of this criminal enterprise.
“The more significant traffickers our agents can lock up and put away in jail, the safer our streets and communities will be in the long run,” said Peña. “Today is a good day for law enforcement across the country.”
Cardenas Vela occupied a position as a Plaza Boss for the Gulf Cartel over the last several years in various places including San Fernando, Rio Bravo and Matamoros, Tamaulipas. A Plaza Boss is the lead representative for the Gulf Cartel in a particular region or town and are in charge of maintaining control of the region for to ensure the safe passage of the Cartel’s narcotics. The Plaza Boss also extracts a “piso,” (payment) by others who want to transport narcotics or operate businesses in that region. To accomplish this, the Plaza Boss is responsible for making recurring bribe payments to Mexican law enforcement and local officials, as well as recruiting, outfitting and maintaining command and control of the Cartel’s employees in that region.
According to the factual basis in support of his plea today, Cardenas Vela was the Plaza Boss for the San Fernando Tamaulipas region for several years leading up his transfer to Rio Bravo, Tamaulipas in June 2010. San Fernando is an important thoroughfare in Northern Mexico and narcotics commonly pass through San Fernando on their way to Cartel collection points along the Rio Grande River. In June 2010, Cardenas assumed Plaza Boss leadership of Rio Bravo, an area along the Rio Grande River east of Reynosa, Mexico. Rio Bravo’s location on the United States-Mexico border has made it a common collection point for a good share of the Gulf Cartel’s narcotics prior to passage into this country. Cardenas Vela maintained command and control of the Rio Bravo Plaza until March 2011.
The internal struggle for power that began after the death of his uncle, Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, in November 2010 continued within the Gulf Cartel and Cardenas Vela and elements allied with him began to fight with elements associated with Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez – aka El Cos. It was during this struggle that Cardenas Vela ousted Jose Luis Zuniga, aka Wicho, from leadership of Matamoros and assumed control. During this feud, the Zetas unsuccessfully attempted to gain control of the Control-Ramirez and Reynosa Plazas. Cardenas ultimately fled into the United States in May 2011 to escape the power struggles in Northern Mexico and was able to maintain control of the Matamoros Plaza through the use of daily emails to key leadership within the Cartel.
Upon his Oct. 20, 2011, arrest in Port Isabel, Texas, cell phones and ledgers were seized from Cardenas and from searches of residences associated with Cardenas which establish evidence as to his narcotics trafficking. A phone toll analysis demonstrated connectivity with several active and ongoing drug investigations and a ledger was also analyzed that indicated the personnel structure of the armed and unarmed individuals under Cardenas’ control as well as the purchase of weapons, protective equipment, vehicles and gasoline for these vehicles. In an effort to conceal their illegal activities, this organization utilized the vehicles which had hidden compartments to conceal the cocaine, marijuana and currency which was being transported.
The Cardenas elements of the Gulf Cartel would purchase approximately 70-80 kilograms of cocaine a month in southern Mexico. Small vehicles were utilized to transport smaller amounts, between 16-20 kilograms at a time, so as to reduce the risk of large seizures on the way to the Texas/Mexico border.
The members of the criminal enterprise encoded their written and oral drug related and conspiratorial communications to further shield themselves from law enforcement detection. They used aliases and call signs during their communications to protect their identities from law enforcement agencies. In order to further the aims and goals of this criminal enterprise, the aid of law enforcement authorities was solicited to provide information and protection for the organization’s criminal activities in exchange for the payment of money and/or gifts. Specifically, Rafael Cardenas Vela directed payments to various individuals related to law enforcement in Mexico. The Cartel also incurs costs to properly equip its members, including the purchase of bullet proof vests, grenades, tactical vests, bullet proof vehicles, weapons, ammunition, cell phones, radios, and salaries.
“Guardias” maintain surveillance on the Mexican Military for the Gulf Cartel and elements of the Gulf Cartel would also maintain video and audio surveillance at key areas throughout Matamoros to maintain surveillance and intelligence of law enforcement and rival gang’s activities. At the time of Cardenas’ arrest, it was discovered he had approximately 500 men equipped and ready to respond to his call.
Cardenas Vela stipulated that during his leadership, Cardenas contributed in excess of 150 kilos of cocaine and 1,000 kilos of marijuana, during which he obtained at least $5 million in drug proceeds as a result of this conspiracy.
U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen, who accepted the guilty plea today, has set sentencing for June 18, 2012, at which time he faces a minimum of 10 years and up to life in prison, a fine of up to $10 million and up to five years of supervised release. Cardenas also agreed to a $5 million money judgment and the forfeiture of his interest in a real property on Bluewing Circle in Brownsville which was purchased with drug proceeds.
Cardenas has been in custody since his arrest where he will remain pending transfer to a U.S. Bureau of Prisons facility to be determined in the near future.
The case was investigated by the DEA, ICE-HSI, FBI and the Port Isabel Police Department. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Jody Young and Angel Castro.