Pubdate: Sun, 19 Aug 2007
Source: San Antonio Express-News (TX)
Copyright: 2007 San Antonio Express-News
Author: Mariano Castillo, Express-News Border Bureau
Bookmark: (Cocaine)


LAREDO -- When police investigators realized the hit men they had 
under surveillance were about to attack a local dentist driving a 
Hummer, they issued a hurried order to a patrol car.

Pull the Hummer over, right now.

A few frantic moments later, the dentist was parked, the police 
cruiser behind him, lights flashing. The hit men kept driving, thrown 
off by an apparent routine traffic stop.

They had almost killed the wrong man -- again.

But police were only days away from stopping them for good.

At its ferocious peak in 2005 and 2006, a war between Mexico's two 
biggest drug cartels for control of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, made 
international headlines. But only recently have details emerged on 
how part of it was fought in the United States, in the streets of Laredo.

Court testimony and documents, police investigative reports and 
interviews with law enforcement officers show the Gulf Cartel 
organized three cells of gunmen to operate in Laredo as it defended 
its turf against the Sinaloa Cartel.

They killed five people in about a year before the Laredo cops 
brought them down.

Before and since, both cartels have sent individual assassins on U.S. 
missions, officials say, although most of their warfare has been 
confined to their own country. On the Web

But the Gulf Cartel's work in Laredo displayed a persistence and 
tactical efficiency that eventually helped it repel the Sinaloans and 
maintain its grip on the area, which provides drug shipping access up 
Interstate 35 to San Antonio and beyond.

"To have a hit squad living here, tracking competitors, tracking the 
organization's own members and being able to have that information 
chronicled for their bosses in a very military-type fashion, we've 
never seen before," said Jesse Guillen, the Webb County assistant 
district attorney prosecuting the Laredo cases.

The most effective of the three teams was homegrown, with three young 
high school dropouts from Laredo.

Another was comprised of Mexican gunmen, whose lone assassination 
attempt in Laredo was badly botched, causing detectives here to 
jokingly refer to them as "the Keystones," after the clownish police 
characters of the silent movie era.

But border security wasn't a joking matter, then as now, to a city 
built on international freight, warehousing, trucking and tourism.

Even as cartel killers were operating in her city, then-Laredo Mayor 
Betty Flores was insisting Nuevo Laredo's drug battle was not 
spilling over the border, while Webb County Sheriff Rick Flores (no 
relation to the former mayor) was warning Middle Eastern terror 
groups could arrive at any moment.

The truth, it turns out, was somewhere in the middle.

The hit men, or sicarios, were backed by accomplices, getaway 
vehicles and intelligence. They were very well paid. They could have 
continued killing if Laredo police had not discovered their structure 
and disabled it, Guillen said.

Two Hits, One Day

Detectives here suspected the cartels from the beginning, but it 
would be months before all the pieces came together.

On June 8, 2005, this is what they had: Two apparent executions in 
broad daylight, hours apart and across town from each other.

The day's second victim, Cesario Antonio Carrera, 28, was lured out 
of a car dealership where his Mercedes was being worked on and shot 
several times at close range, police said.

It was done by Sinaloa Cartel thugs, sources familiar with the 
investigation said. Though unrelated to the first slaying, the 
accidental timing had officers speculating from Day 1 that something 
bigger was afoot.

More interesting circumstances marked the first killing, on the 
city's northwest side. Police found Bruno Alberto Orozco Juarez, 24, 
a former Nuevo Laredo cop, shot dead -- his shirt stained with blood, 
a gold chain with a Virgin of Guadalupe pendant around his neck and 
handcuffs locked on his right wrist.

Orozco had stopped for the flashing lights of what appeared to be a 
police car, according to an investigative report. He resisted, 
yelling for help, when he realized the "officer" arresting him was a 
fake. One of his would-be kidnappers shot him with an automatic rifle.

Witnesses described a getaway vehicle, and a police patrol grabbed 
two suspects downtown. Both men talked, so police knew they were 
working for the Zetas, the Gulf Cartel's feared enforcement arm 
founded by Mexican army deserters.

One suspect was a 20-year-old American named Gabriel Cardona. The 
other was named Richard Guerrero. At least two others for whom police 
still have arrest warrants, Wenceslao Tovar and Ivan Martinez, fled.

The motive was murky. What had Orozco done to merit getting killed?

According to an investigative report, Cardona told police Orozco was 
"involved or somehow connected to several deaths in Nuevo Laredo," 
and that Orozco still had a Mexican police radio on which he 
broadcast comments about how the Zetas "were going down one by one."

They were just following orders, Guerrero told police interrogators. 
Orders from Mexico.

The Violent Times

The Gulf Cartel, based across from Brownsville in Matamoros, Mexico, 
and the Sinaloa Cartel, led from that state by one of Mexico's most 
wanted men, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, still are at war.

But the front lines have shifted. The violence in Nuevo Laredo 
decreased noticeably this year. The murder rate in its sister city, 
Laredo, dropped as well.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI agents say the recent 
relative peace can be attributed to reports that the Zetas have 
quelled the Sinaloans' attempt to push the Gulf Cartel out of Nuevo Laredo.

The Gulf Cartel lieutenant who oversaw this successful defense was a 
man known as "El Cuarenta," or "40."

In 2005, he was very busy. Ambushes, kidnappings and shootouts marked 
life in Nuevo Laredo. Police were targeted. Innocent bystanders were 
hit. The city police chief was killed on the same day as the two 
executions in Laredo.

The Zeta cell that killed Orozco in Laredo had been broken up by 
quick arrests in June, but by the end of 2005, it was fully reconstituted.

A Nuevo Laredoan named Lucio Velez Quintero, aka "El Viejon," arrived 
to organize new teams. He reported directly to "40."

Gabriel Cardona, free while awaiting trial on a murder charge because 
of a generous bond reduction, was assigned to work with two other 
Americans, Rosalio Reta, then 16, and another teen, Jesus Gonzalez III.

"These are neighborhood kids who got mixed up with these gangs," said 
Guillen, the prosecutor. "These kids would go across and frequent 
certain bars and were somehow introduced, recruited and offered work."

Velez also formed a second cell of legal and undocumented Mexican immigrants.

Each of the squad members got $500 a week just to be ready when "40" 
authorized a target, Cardona would later tell authorities. The next 
known target was approved on Dec. 8, 2005.

Velez gave the Americans their orders, and the three took Gonzalez's 
white Ford Expedition to a Torta Mex restaurant. They circled the 
block several times, then pulled into the parking lot to block a 
white Lexus that was leaving.

Reta walked up to the driver's side window and fired several rounds, 
killing a man named Moises Garcia. Gonzalez sped to a nearby H-E-B 
grocery, where an accomplice picked them up and took them to a safe 
house, according to a court document.

There, Velez paid Reta a bonus of $10,000 and two kilograms of 
cocaine, the document states.

This time, police had no quick suspects or arrests, just an unsolved 
murder on their hands.

Miss and Hit

The very next night, Dec. 9, the second cell of sicarios also was 
given a mission.

David Martinez Cerezo, 26, and Pablo Perez Gonzalez, 22, together 
with a third man, were assigned to kill a former Gulf Cartel 
trafficker who had defected to the Sinaloa Cartel, federal court 
documents show.

Only Martinez and Perez went on the job, tracking their target (who 
was not identified in court records) to a Wal-Mart Super Center in 
east Laredo. Handguns hidden, they searched the store.

As they exited, they spotted the defector getting into a Hummer. 
Martinez and Perez blazed away with their pistols, then fled in a 
waiting Chevy Suburban. The Hummer drove off.

Later, investigators would apply a nickname to these gunmen: the 
Keystone sicarios. But no one was laughing at the time.

Apparently it was obvious to "40" that Cardona, Reta and Gonzalez 
were the A-Team. Court documents say he ordered their next hit for 
Jan. 8, 2006.

A Laredo man named Mike Lopez owed the cartel a drug debt, Cardona 
would later tell police -- although the cops believe the true motive 
was that Lopez was dating one of "40's" ex-girlfriends.

The young Americans got a call from "40" himself, instructing them to 
use a car already parked at an H-E-B. They'd know it by the water 
bottle atop it. Keys were under the mat.

On Jan. 8, with Reta at the wheel, Cardona next to him and Gonzalez 
in back, they tracked Lopez and some friends to his home on Frost 
Street. The group had just celebrated Lopez's birthday at a bar, 
court documents state.

The killers parked the 1991 Nissan Sentra in front of the house, but 
Gonzalez was afraid, so Cardona got out, Reta later told police.

"I heard gunshots -- lots of them," Juan Munoz, a friend of Lopez, 
recalled at Reta's trial for murder. Or, as Guillen told jurors, "The 
order was given, no questions were asked, the execution was carried out."

But the Gulf Cartel had killed the wrong man. Cardona's bullets had 
struck Noe Flores, Lopez's stepbrother.

Lopez straddled the body of his slain sibling and tried to lift him 
by his shirt, shouting, "No, no, don't do this to me! Get up! Get 
up!" Munoz testified.

The sicarios ditched their car three blocks away and were picked up 
by Aurora del Bosque, an accomplice who also aided them after the 
Garcia slaying.

Not one to skip an opportunity, "40" called his assassins as they 
fled to a safehouse, telling them Lopez was crying over his brother. 
He wanted them to return and finish the job, according to a court document.

Out of caution, they didn't turn around. But they weren't cautious enough.

Left in the abandoned Sentra was a half-full pack of Marlboro Reds 
and a months-old convenience store receipt for a mobile phone card, 
items that would help police end the killings.

The hit squad continued to operate. On April 2, 2006, it completed 
its final mission.

Reta and Gonzalez were hiding in Mexico, but Cardona, the reliable 
one, and some new accomplices were assigned to kill a former Gulf 
Cartel trafficker who had started working with the Sinaloans.

They hid in a pickup and followed Jesus Maria Resendez from a house 
he owned in Rio Bravo, a small town near Laredo. They pulled 
alongside Resendez's truck at a red light and killed him and his 
15-year-old nephew Mariano Resendez with automatic weapons.

Breaking the Case

A routine Border Patrol stop of suspected undocumented immigrants in 
January 2006, about halfway through the hit squad's reign, turned out 
to be something much more.

Agents picked up three men near a border fence, federal court 
documents state. The Border Patrol learned police wanted to talk to 
two of them -- Pablo Perez Gonzalez and David Martinez Cerezo.

How they became suspects is unclear, but under questioning, the 
Keystones opened up. Detectives had heard of "40." They and other 
observers of the drug war knew his real name. Now they had firsthand 
operational details.

Both Martinez and Perez were convicted on federal weapons charges 
that contain details of their attempt to kill a Gulf Cartel enemy in 
a Wal-Mart parking lot.

Almost all the other hit squad participants have been charged with 
murder, including "40," who -- like Velez and a few others -- hasn't 
been caught. The rest are in custody. Several have pleaded guilty and 
received lengthy prison terms.

So far, only Reta has fought the charge, but pleaded guilty after a 
judge allowed his confession into evidence at trial.

At the trial, Martinez was an eager prosecution witness -- for 
"personal reasons," as he cryptically put it -- and gave "40's" name, 
perhaps the first time it had been uttered in a public forum: Miguel 
Trevino Morales.

It was the convenience store receipt for the phone card that unlocked 
much of the puzzle, detective Robert Garcia testified. It didn't 
belong to any of the sicarios, but to a local mechanic who sold the 
car to them.

Detectives Garcia and Carlos Adan got the phone, and found phone 
numbers for the American hit squad saved on it. The cigarette pack 
found in the car had one of Reta's fingerprints on it.

Coupled with the confessions of the Keystone sicarios, Garcia and 
Adan had enough to convince other arrested squad members to confess.

Martinez gave detectives details that other squad members eventually 
would confirm in their own confessions: the pay, the bonuses for the 
triggerman in a successful hit, and the fact it was Trevino -- "40" 
- -- who gave the orders.

The operation was large, complex and constantly changing. But it 
wasn't the DEA or FBI that picked it apart. It was the Laredo Police 

"I can tell you that there was a certain amount of cooperation (with 
federal law enforcement agencies), but by and large this was Laredo 
PD's case," said Guillen, the prosecutor.

The Laredo police are under scrutiny. Two veteran officers recently 
were charged in a federal indictment, accused of allowing illegal 
gambling parlors to operate unmolested -- just as the department was 
congratulating itself on Reta's conviction.

No matter how that turns out, Guillen said the department still can 
be credited with stopping cartel killers from taking more lives, like 
that of the dentist who almost became a casualty on April 8, 2006.

"It's reminiscent of the stuff you see on TV and movies," Guillen said. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake