Gulf Cartel leader "El Junior" gets 20 years in federal prison

A luxury home reportedly owned by Cardenas-Vela just east of Rio Hondo // File Photo

A former Gulf Cartel leader faced a judge on Monday morning where he learned that he will spend a total of 20 years in federal prison.

Rafael Cardenas-Vela appeared for sentencing before U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Hanen in Brownsville late Monday morning.

Known by the nickname "El Junior," Cardenas-Vela had pleaded guilty to a federal drug conspiracy charge back in March 2012.

Cardenas-Vela admitted to moving large amounts of cocaine and marijuana across the border and into several American cities.

Judge Hanen sentenced Cardenas-Vela to 20 years in federal prison and ordered that he pay a $100,000 dollar fine.

The sentence is already imposed on top of an agreement where Cardenas-Vela would forfeit $5 million dollars in drug cash as well as a home off Bluewing Circle in Brownsville.

The 41-year-old drug cartel leader had been in custody since his October 2011 arrest in Port Isabel.

Cardenas-Vela is the nephew of jailed Gulf Cartel kingpin Osiel Cardenas-Guillen as well as slain Gulf Cartel leader Ezequiel "Tony Tormenta" Cardenas-Guillen.

Plea Deal

Court records show that "El Junior" was facing up to life in prison but got a reduced sentenced due to a plea deal and his cooperation with federal investigators.

During his sentencing, Judge Hanen heard how Cardenas-Vela had testified for three days in the drug trafficking trial of Juan Roberto Rincon-Rincon.

Rincon-Rincon was a former high-ranking plaza boss for the Gulf Cartel in Rio Bravo, Tamaulipas.

During that trial, Cardenas-Vela described the command and control structure of the Gulf Cartel between 2002 and his arrest in 2011 as well as the creation of the Zetas drug trafficking organization and its TM split from the Gulf Cartel.

Plaza Boss

Cardenas-Vela occupied a position as a "plaza boss" for the Gulf Cartel over the last several years in various cities south of the border such as San Fernando, Rio Bravo and Matamoros.

A "plaza boss" is the top Gulf Cartel leader in a particular region or town and who is in charge of maintaining control of the region for to ensure the safe passage of the cartel TMs drug shipments.

The plaza boss also extracts a piso, or payment by others who want to transport drugs or operate criminal businesses in that region.

A plaza boss is also 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 TMs employees in that region.

According to the factual basis in support of his plea, Cardenas-Vela was the plaza boss for the San Fernando region for several years leading up his transfer to Rio Bravo back 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-Vela assumed plaza boss leadership of Rio Bravo, an area along the Rio Grande River east of Reynosa.

Rio Bravo TMs location on the United States-Mexico border has made it a common collection point for a good share of the Gulf Cartel TMs narcotics prior to passage into this country.

Cardenas-Vela maintained command and control of the Rio Bravo Plaza until March 2011.

Power Stuggle

The internal struggle for power that began after the death of his uncle, Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, in November 2010 continued within the Gulf Cartel.

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 El 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.

Arrest Details

Following his October 2011 arrest in Port Isabel, federal agents seized cell phones and ledgers from Cardenas-Vela.

Searches of homes associated with him, established evidence as to his narcotics trafficking activities.

Federal prosecutors reported that a phone toll analysis demonstrated connectivity with several active and ongoing drug investigations.

A ledger was also analyzed and reportedly showed the personnel structure of the armed and unarmed individuals under Cardenas TM control.

The ledgers also showed 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.

Cartel Activity

The Cardenas-Vela elements of the Gulf Cartel would purchase approximately 70-80 kilograms of cocaine a month in southern Mexico.

Small vehicles were used 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.

Federal prosecutors said the members of the criminal enterprise reportedly encoded their written and oral 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 TMs activities.

At the time of Cardenas TM 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.

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