Rafael Cardenas Vela, 38, faces drug, money laundering and document fraud charges. The two most serious charges – conspiracy to possess, deliver and import more than five kilograms (11 pounds) of cocaine and more than 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds) of marijuana – each carry a sentence of 10 years to life in prison, a fine of up to $10 million and up to five years of supervised release, upon conviction. Cardenas – known variously as “El Junior,” “Comandante 900” and “El Rolex” – also faces one count of money laundering and two counts of using fraudulent documents. He was the only party charged in the indictment issued Friday in Brownsville.
The government also moved to force Cardenas to forfeit $20 million dollars, a house in Rio Hondo and a house in Brownsville. The forfeiture would take place if he is convicted. The house in Rio Hondo is listed as 35698 Farm-to-Market Road 106 in the Latina Country Estates. The house in Brownsville – 1312 Bluewing Circle in the Lakeway Subdivision – is listed under the name of Emilio Villarreal and Laura Capistran.
The Monitor attempted to contact the homeowners listed but was unable to speak with anyone. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement led an operation in October that led to Cardenas’ arrest in Port Isabel. Municipal police there pulled over Cardenas’ Ford F-150 pickup as part of a traffic stop and took him into custody without incident.
Once seen as the Gulf Cartel’s heir apparent, Cardenas is the nephew of infamous Gulf Cartel leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen and co-leader Antonio Ezekiel “Tony Tormenta” Cardenas Guillen. The Mexican military arrested Osiel Cardenas in 2003 in Matamoros. He is serving a prison term in the United States. Antonio Cardenas was killed by the Mexican military on Nov. 5, 2010, in Matamoros after a day of firefights.
Rafael Cardenas and other members of the Gulf Cartel purchased bulletproof vehicles, automatic weapons, grenades, homemade cannons and body armor that the syndicate used to further its operations and carry out its ongoing struggle with the rival Zetas, according to court documents. Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched a sweeping crackdown on his country’s entrenched criminal organizations in December 2006, dispatching thousands of soldiers to Mexico’s northern frontier. From then until early October, nearly 43,000 were killed in the nation’s drug war, according to congressional testimony by Rodney G. Benson, chief of intelligence for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Even Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño – long critical of state and federal leaders who he said played loose with their definition of “spillover” violence from Mexico – acknowledged earlier this month that the shooting of one of his deputies amounted to bona fide spillover. That incident, which stemmed from a botched drug transaction and kidnapping, is directly tied to the Gulf Cartel, the sheriff has said.
Court records identify Rafael Cardenas as one of the principal leaders of the Gulf Cartel, which is listed as a criminal enterprise headquartered in Matamoros that imports, warehouses, transports and distributes tons of cocaine and marijuana from Mexico to the United States.
The indictment further accuses Rafael Cardenas of working with current Gulf Cartel leader Jorge Eduardo “El Coss” Costilla Sanchez and others in managing drug distribution cells in the U.S that acted as smaller units within the Gulf Cartel and were present in Brownsville, McAllen, Houston and northern U.S. cities.
The Gulf Cartel would move the drug proceeds back to Mexico and used hidden compartments in vehicles to hide the currency going south and the drugs coming north, according to the indictment. During the regular course of business, members of the syndicate would use call signs to conceal their identities.
Cardenas Vela has been identified as El Junior, Comandante 900 and El Rolex. Court records allege Rafael Cardenas directed the payments of money and gifts to various individuals in law enforcement in Mexico.
Documents on file with the court also confirm a previous report identifying him as the “plaza boss” – the chief of operations for a specific area – in San Fernando, Tamps, since 2000. Located some 80 miles south of Brownsville, San Fernando has made grim headlines in the past two years. In 2010, authorities found the bodies of 72 migrants inside a warehouse in the city’s rural area. In early 2011, authorities discovered 193 bodies in several mass graves, also in a rural area.
Mexican authorities have attributed the slayings to the Zetas, the former enforcement wing of the Gulf Cartel that has since become its worst enemy. After his stint as boss in San Fernando, Rafael Cardenas was moved to Rio Bravo – across the border from Donna – and finally became embroiled in an internal struggle for control of Matamoros after the death of his uncle Antonio Cardenas. The younger Cardenas assumed control of Matamoros in March 2011.
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