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South Texas federal jury convicts Gulf Cartel plaza boss

BROWNSVILLE, Texas — A high ranking member of the Gulf Cartel was convicted Sept. 28 regarding a drug trafficking conspiracy that spanned more than 10 years, announced U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson, Southern District of Texas.

This investigation was led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), with several other federal and state law enforcement agencies.

Juan Roberto Rincon-Rincon, 41, from Matamoros, Mexico, was convicted of conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute, and conspiracy to import into the United States, more than five kilograms of cocaine and 1,000 kilograms of marijuana, from January 2002 until his capture Oct. 26, 2011.

U.S. District Judge Hilda G. Tagle, has set sentencing for Jan. 7 at which time Rincon-Rincon faces no less than 10 years, and up to life, in prison and a $10 million fine. He will remain in custody pending that hearing.

According to court documents, evidence presented at trial proved that more than 5,000 kilograms of marijuana were seized in representative seizures by U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Border Patrol during September and October 2011. During that time, Rincon-Rincon was proven to be the plaza boss of Rio Bravo, Tamaulipas, Mexico. In that leadership role, the money derived from the Gulf Cartel was more than $20 million. As the plaza boss, which is the lead representative for the Gulf Cartel in a particular region or town, Rincon-Rincon, aka Primo or X-5, was in charge of maintaining control to ensure safe passage of the cartel's narcotics, and ensuring no narcotics pass through his area of responsibility without his approval or knowledge.

For more than a decade, Rincon-Rincon was a close associate of Jorge Eduardo Costilla, aka El Coss. Costilla has been the head of the Gulf Cartel drug trafficking organization since the capture of Osiel Cardenas-Guillen in March 2003. Costilla, also charged in this district, was arrested by Mexican authorities two weeks ago. He is presumed innocent unless and until convicted through due process of law.

Rafael Cardenas-Vela Jr. and others provided testimony that beginning in about 2000, Rincon-Rincon began working his way up the ranks of the Gulf Cartel through his association with Costilla. At that time, Rincon-Rincon worked as a municipal police officer in Matamoros and assisted the Gulf Cartel in their drug trafficking activities as a police officer, and also by selling narcotics and collecting money at local drug houses in Matamoros. The jury heard testimony that Rincon-Rincon later served as an intermediary regarding drug negotiations. Several others, including Cardenas-Vela, have told law enforcement that they often had to go through Rincon-Rincon to relay information, receive authorization to transport drugs, to make bribe payments and to negotiate drug terms. Rincon-Rincon also received large amounts of bulk cash currency that were proceeds from the sale of large amounts of Gulf Cartel narcotics.

Cardenas-Vela, the nephew of Cardenas-Guillen and Ezequiel Antonio Cardenas-Guillen, aka Tony Tormenta, pleaded guilty to the same conspiracy charge earlier this year and provided detailed testimony of the cartel's activities, its internal power struggles, his association with Rincon-Rincon, and his illegal activities.

While plaza boss in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, Mexico, Cardenas-Vela and the Gulf Cartel utilized landing strips in rural areas of San Fernando to circumvent Mexican military checkpoints and allow small airplanes to transport cocaine for eventual importation into the United States. Elements of the Gulf Cartel, including Rincon-Rincon, received the cocaine loads at warehouses set up by Cardenas-Vela. Rincon-Rincon's involvement in these loads lasted for the duration of Cardenas-Vela's control of San Fernando, and the amount of cocaine transported was well in excess of 150 kilograms. In fact, Cardenas testified that each cocaine load that came from the San Fernando landing strips contained 500 kilograms of cocaine, the majority of which was destined to be exported into the United States. Cardenas further testified that the 500 kilogram cocaine shipments occurred on a monthly basis while he was in charge of San Fernando between 2004 and 2009.

During his association with the cartel, Rincon-Rincon was also in charge of a "polla," which involves collecting money to purchase cocaine, and then distributing the cocaine to those who contributed. Several co-defendants testified that Rincon-Rincon collected between $500,000 and $600,000 from Gulf Cartel conspirators. He then returned with 120 to 150 kilograms of cocaine, which was then exported into the U.S. by Gulf Cartel associates.

An internal power struggle later developed between Cardenas-Vela and those loyal to Costilla, including Rincon-Rincon, which eventually led to a fire-fight Oct. 25, 2011, during which another plaza boss was killed. As a result, Rincon-Rincon and others fled into the United States and were captured by law enforcement Oct. 26, 2011.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Angel Castro and Jody L. Young, Southern District of Texas, prosecuted the case.