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November 18, 2011Brownsville, TX, United StatesContraband

Gulf Cartel "Plaza Boss" indicted for drug smuggling, money laundering and document fraud

BROWNSVILLE, Texas – A notorious south Texas Gulf Cartel "Plaza Boss" was indicted on Friday for participating in drug smuggling and money laundering conspiracies, and for procuring fraudulent visa documents, announced U.S Attorney Kenneth Magidson, Southern District of Texas. The investigation is being led by U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) with the assistance of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Rafael Cardenas-Vela, 38, is the nephew to both Osiel Cardenas Guillen and Ezequiel "Tony Tormenta" Cardenas Guillen. Osiel Cardenas-Guillen was convicted of federal drug charges by the Southern District of Texas in 2010 and is serving a 25-year prison term. His uncle, Tormenta–Cardenas Guillen, was reported killed in November 2010.

According to court documents, the indictment alleges that Cardenas-Vela – aka Junior, Commandante 900, and Rolex – occupied a position as a principal leader of a criminal enterprise. The criminal enterprise, known as the Gulf Cartel, was headquartered in Matamoros, Mexico, and allegedly imports, warehouses, transports and distributes tons of cocaine and marijuana into the United States.

"ICE HSI agents have made it a top priority to bring stability and security to this border region" said Jerry Robinette, special agent in charge of ICE HSI in San Antonio. "Holding those responsible and accountable for these crimes is the first step."

Cardenas-Vela, a native of Mexico, was arrested on Oct. 20 in Port Isabel, Texas. He made his initial appearance the following day, at which time he was ordered held without bond pending further criminal proceedings.

Cardenas-Vela – along with Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, aka El Cos, and other unindicted co-conspirators &ndash 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 allegedly located in various Texas cities such as Houston, Brownsville and McAllen, 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 U.S. currency which represented the proceeds from the distribution and sale of cocaine and marijuana in the United States, according to allegations. Once the drug proceeds were collected at various points within the United States, the money was transported to Mexico to further the aims of this criminal enterprise.

In an effort to conceal their illegal activities, this organization allegedly used vehicles with hidden compartments to conceal the cocaine, marijuana and currency which were being transported. The criminal enterprise members encoded their written and oral drug-related and conspiratorial communications to further shield them from law enforcement detection. The indictment also alleges that members of this criminal enterprise used aliases and call signs during their communications to protect their identities from law enforcement agencies. To further the aims and goals of this criminal enterprise, law enforcement authorities were solicited to provide information and protection for the organization's criminal activities. Specifically, Cardenas-Vela directed the payments of money and/or gifts to various individuals related to law enforcement in Mexico.

In addition, the indictment indicates that firearms were often used as a tool during the drug trafficking activities of this organization. Bulletproof vehicles, automatic weapons, grenades, homemade cannons and body armor were allegedly purchased by Cardenas-Vela and Gulf Cartel members to further their conspiracy to possess narcotics in Mexico and to import these narcotics into the United States. These weapons were allegedly used by Gulf Cartel members, at the direction of Cardenas-Vela and other leaders, to maintain control of the Mexican drug corridor from their rivals, Los Zetas. Body guards were routinely employed to protect various members of this organization, including but not limited to Cardenas-Vela.

Beginning around 2000, the indictment alleges Cardenas-Vela served as the "Plaza Boss" for the Gulf Cartel of San Fernando, Tamaulipas, Mexico. He became the "Plaza Boss" of the Rio Bravo area of Tamaulipas, Mexico, about two years ago. (A "Plaza Boss" is the leader of a geographic area for the Gulf Cartel.) After the death of his uncle, "Tony Tormenta," in November 2010, Cardenas-Vela allegedly became engaged in an internal power struggle for control of the Matamoros plaza with an unindicted co-conspirator. Around March 2011, Cardenas-Vela assumed control of the Matamoros plaza.

Cardenas-Vela is charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to deliver and conspiracy to import more than five kilograms (11 pounds) of cocaine and more than 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds) of marijuana. For each of these two charges, he faces a mandatory minimum of 10 years up to life in prison, a fine of up to $10 million, and up to five years of supervised release. Upon conviction of conspiracy to launder money, Cardenas-Vela faces up to 20 years imprisonment, a fine of a maximum $500,000 or twice the amount of the money instruments or funds involved in the conspiracy, as well as a period of supervised release of up to five years. Also charged with procuring a fraudulent Mexican passport and U.S. visa, he faces an additional 20 years, a $250,000 fine and five years of supervised release if convicted.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jody Young and Angel Castro, Southern District of Texas, are prosecuting this case.

An indictment is a formal accusation of criminal conduct, not evidence. A defendant is presumed innocent unless convicted through due process of law.