'El Junior' pleads guilty, sentencing set for June 18th

Brownsville Federal Courthouse

A man once considered to be the 'heir' to the Gulf Cartel empire has pleaded guilty to a federal drug trafficking case in Brownsville.

Rafael Cardenas-Vela appeared before U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Hanen on Monday morning.

Cardenas-Vela, who goes by the cartel nickname 'El Junior,' pleaded guilty to his role in a drug trafficking conspiracy.

The Matamoros native admitted to overseeing marijuana and cocaine smuggling operations for the Gulf Cartel.

Leadership Role

Court records show that 'El Junior' rose through the ranks of the Gulf Cartel starting off as a plaza boss in San Fernando and later in Rio Bravo, Tamaulipas.

But Cardenas-Vela stepped into a greaterleadership role following the death of his uncle Ezequiel Cardenas-Guillen (aka "Tony Tormenta") back on November 2010.

El Junior become plaza boss of Matamoros where repelled attemps by the rival Zetas drug cartel to take over Reynosa, Control and Estacion Ramirez.

An internal power struggle inside the Gulf Cartel forced Cardenas-Vela to move to Cameron County where he owned homes in Brownsville and just outside Rio Hondo.

But court records show that Cardenas-Vela maintained control over 500 men in Matamoros through daily emails to other Gulf Cartel leaders.

Arrest & Sentencing

American authorities arrested Cardenas-Vela and two bodyguards during a traffic stop in Port Isabel back in October 2011.

The two bodyguards with him pleaded guilty to lying to federal agenst about his identity.

They were both sentenced to 126 days in federal prison and are expected to be deported after.

Judge Hanen accepted Cardenas-Vela's Monday morning guilty plea and ordered sentencing for June 18th.

Cardenas-Vela faces 10 years to life in prison.