Pubdate: Fri, 15 Apr 2016
Source: Dallas Morning News (TX)
Copyright: 2016 The Dallas Morning News, Inc.
Authors: Alfredo Corchado and Kevin Krause


Kingpin's Plea With U.S. Triggered Years of Bloodshed Reaching All 
the Way to Southlake Zetas Saw Gulf Cartel Leader As Traitor, 
Declared a War That Has Killed Thousands of People

A plea agreement between a Mexican drug kingpin and the U.S. 
government helped generate a violent split between two drug cartels 
that led to the deaths of thousands of people in Mexico and along the 
Texas border, a Dallas Morning News investigation has found.

A masked gunman fired multiple times at Juan Jesus Guerrero Chapa 
with a 9 mm handgun through the passenger window of his Range Rover 
at Southlake Town Square in May 2013. Three Mexican citizens were 
arrested more than a year later and charged with stalking, and aiding 
and abetting in the hit.

The News' investigation of the deal between Gulf cartel leader Osiel 
Cardenas Guillen and the U.S. is based on hundreds of confidential 
government records and interviews with U.S. and Mexico law 
enforcement officials, confidential informants and former members of 
the Gulf cartel and the Zetas, its former enforcement and 
paramilitary arm. It provides a rare view of the strategy and tactics 
used in the drug war on both sides of the border, as well as the 
operations and shifting dynamics within cartels.

In July 2009, Cardenas agreed to plead guilty in federal court to 
drug dealing, money laundering and attempted murder of U.S. agents. 
As part of the deal, which was sealed at the time, he promised to 
turn over $50 million. He received a relatively light prison sentence 
of 25 years in early 2010.

Details of the forfeiture have not been reported until now. The News' 
key findings:

A longtime attorney and confidant of Cardenas oversaw the collection 
and transfer of assets. Juan Jesus Guerrero Chapa also provided a 
wealth of intelligence to the U.S. government on behalf of Cardenas 
over several years while allegedly continuing his involvement in the 
drug trade. Guerrero Chapa was tracked down and murdered in 2013 by a 
masked gunman as he shopped with his wife in the quiet Dallas suburb 
of Southlake, where he owned a home.

A trial for two of the three men allegedly involved in his killing is 
set for April 25. A defense attorney for one of the defendants 
claimed in court papers filed recently that Guerrero Chapa was the 
"de facto head" of the Gulf cartel who continued his "association 
with criminal enterprises" until his death.

The forfeited $50 million involved not only cash but also ranches and 
aircraft. Much of the cash was extracted from underground bunkers in 
Mexico and carried across the border in the trunk of a car in 2008 and 2009.

The Zetas thought that the transfers would win Cardenas an early 
release. Cardenas had created the Zetas from former members of an 
elite unit of the Mexican military. Tensions had escalated between 
the Gulf cartel and the Zetas after Cardenas' arrest, and the Zetas 
had developed into a full-fledged cartel by the time of his 
sentencing. When the group discovered he had been providing 
intelligence to the U.S., it declared war against the Gulf cartel 
over the betrayal.

The war triggered an explosion of drug-related violence in parts of 
Mexico and along the Texas border, according to experts and U.S. 
officials with knowledge of the deal.

"The Zetas split is really the first of a series of schisms and 
fractures in the major cartels' organizations that leads to the 
incredibly prolific violence that we see from 2008 to 2011," said 
David Shirk, principal investigator at the University of San Diego's 
Justice in Mexico Project. "It's really the beginning of the cartel 
wars. ... The last decade has been Mexico's Vietnam, only it's 
happening at home, right down the street, rather than televised from 
across an ocean."

Through a spokesman, the U.S. Department of Justice declined to 
answer several emailed questions from The News regarding the deal and 
Guerrero Chapa's involvement. The U.S. attorneys in Dallas and 
Houston also declined.

Estimates of the number of people killed in drug violence nationwide 
range from 80,000, according to the Justice in Mexico Project, to 
150,000, according to the Brookings Institution, during the 2006-12 
administration of Mexican President Felipe Calderon. The Mexican 
government has also reported that more than 26,000 people 
disappeared, but some independent estimates are much higher. Some of 
the worst violence was along the Texas border.

Innocents were regularly caught in the spreading chaos:

In August 2010, 72 people, mostly Central American immigrants, were 
abducted from a bus and massacred in Tamaulipas state.

More than 300 residents in Coahuila state disappeared in early 2011, 
an incident blamed on the Zetas.

A casino fire set by the Zetas killed 52 people, including women and 
elderly, in Monterrey in August 2011.

U.S. law enforcement officials are deeply divided about their role in 
the Cardenas case. On the one hand, some say, the plea deal provided 
a vast amount of intelligence, which weakened the Gulf cartel and the 
Zetas. Others express regret about the unintended effect that U.S. 
intervention had on ordinary Mexicans.

"We all thought we were doing the right thing, but truth is we didn't 
fully anticipate the violence, and that's on us," said a federal 
agent who was not authorized to speak publicly. "We didn't understand 
the dynamics on the ground ... and many people died, including innocents."

The dead included U.S. federal agent Jaime Zapata, who was ambushed 
by the Zetas a year after the Cardenas plea deal. While he and his 
partner, Victor Avila, were on a covert mission in central Mexico, 
their armored SUV with diplomatic plates was forced off the road. 
Zapata, shot six times, bled to death. Avila was shot twice but survived.

Four defendants have pleaded guilty to charges of murder and 
attempted murder and are awaiting sentencing.

Avila and his lawyer believe that because they pleaded guilty and are 
possibly cooperating with the U.S., they will likely not face the 
maximum prison sentence.

"It is disgusting," said Avila, who retired in 2015 after 16 years as 
a federal agent. "You don't cut deals with murderers, especially with 
those who threatened or in this case killed a U.S. federal agent."

Avila acknowledges the value of plea agreements but hasn't come to 
terms with their price.

"There was some positive impact in the sense that some Zetas are in 
jail, others killed," Avila said. "The organizations have been 
disrupted or half-disrupted, the violence appears to have fallen, but 
at what price? So many innocents killed, and at the price of a U.S. 
federal agent's life?"

The imprisoned kingpin

Cardenas' path to brutal drug kingpin had humble beginnings. A 
onetime car mechanic and policeman, he rose through the ranks of the 
Gulf cartel by helping the organization's boss, Juan Garcia Abrego. 
After Garcia Abrego was arrested in 1996, Cardenas eventually took 
control of the cartel. His ascent to power included killing a friend, 
which earned him the nickname "El Mata Amigos" or "The Friend Killer."

In May 1999, Cardenas threatened to kill a Cameron County sheriff 's 
deputy working undercover. That same year, a Drug Enforcement 
Administration agent and an FBI agent who crossed into Mexico to talk 
to an informant were threatened at gunpoint by Cardenas and his gang.

Cardenas wanted them to hand over the informant. They reminded 
Cardenas that the last time a U.S agent was killed in Mexico - DEA 
agent Enrique Camarena in 1985 - the U.S. government pursued the case 
until most of those involved were arrested or killed. Cardenas 
relented but warned the agents not to return.

After the standoff, he hid at Guerrero Chapa's private ranch in Nuevo 
Leon, according to a former top Cardenas lieutenant. But the U.S. 
pressure was relentless.

In 2003, Cardenas was arrested by the Mexican military in Matamoros, 
his hometown. At the time, the U.S. government considered Cardenas 
one of the most notorious and violent drug traffickers in the world. 
His criminal organization was responsible for what U.S. agents have 
called bloodbaths along the Mexican border in which thousands were killed.

 From a Mexican prison, Cardenas ran his drug empire largely through 
Guerrero Chapa. He also provided limited operational secrets to the 
U.S. government about Gulf cartel members and rival cartel figures. 
The scope of those secrets would widen.

In 2007, just weeks after Calderon was sworn into office as 
president, Cardenas was extradited to the United States, a move 
hailed as a sign of exemplary binational cooperation.

Initially, Cardenas considered fighting the U.S. drug and conspiracy 
charges, according to two former associates. But his legal team 
reminded him that the last Mexican capo to do so, his predecessor 
Juan Garcia Abrego, lost the court battle and was imprisoned for 11 
consecutive life terms and forced to turn over millions in illegal 
proceeds. The best strategy was to cooperate, they counseled.

Two of the four Cardenas attorneys, Roberto J. Yzaguirre and Chip 
Lewis, declined to comment for this story. The other two, Crispin 
Quintanilla and Michael Ramsey, did not return calls seeking comment.

Once in U.S. custody, Cardenas began cooperating more freely with 
U.S. agents, a senior U.S. official said. He gave up operational 
details, including the names of smugglers who oversaw the movement of 
drugs from Colombia to Mexico and into South Texas, Houston, Dallas 
and Atlanta.

An informant's value

Guerrero Chapa hailed from the town of China in Nuevo Leon, but 
little is known about his early life. He came to the attention of 
U.S. agents around 2000, according to federal investigative documents 
obtained by The News.

By 2001, U.S. intelligence reports described Guerrero Chapa as a "key 
individual" in the Gulf cartel and cited an informant who speculated 
that his recent trips to Mexico City were to bribe government 
officials there. The reports refer to Guerrero Chapa as being 
"intimately involved in drug trafficking with the Gulf cartel."

The earliest mention of Guerrero Chapa as an apparent U.S. informant 
- - in the documents obtained by The News - was in 2008, the year after 
his boss was extradited to the U.S.

It's unlikely that Guerrero Chapa became a snitch behind Cardenas' 
back, the former Gulf cartel lieutenant said. Rather, cooperating 
with U.S. authorities was likely part of Cardenas' strategy to plant 
a trusted ally inside to gain the latest intelligence.

Since 2008, U.S. policy had revolved around the Merida Initiative, a 
$2.3 billion plan created under the George W. Bush administration. 
Its purpose was to help Mexico confront threats to its national 
security, in part through promoting judicial reform and providing 
military equipment and intelligence support.

An army of Mexican informants emerged, with secret access to some of 
that country's most powerful and dangerous criminal organizations.

Few were as valuable as Guerrero Chapa, an influential deal maker who 
had contacts within the Gulf cartel as well as the Mexican military and media.

"Guerrero Chapa is one of the most key individuals in the Gulf Drug 
Cartel who has contact with the highest-level of drug traffickers in 
Mexico," according to a 2001 confidential government document 
obtained by The News.

Documents obtained by The News show that Guerrero Chapa:

Aided the Mexican military with plans to capture cartel figures.

Helped negotiate hostage releases and truces between rival cartels.

Mediated disputes among gangsters, including "cocaine payment issues" 
and a fight over more than 500 acres of beachfront property in Tampico.

Guerrero Chapa also proved valuable to U.S. authorities seeking to 
infiltrate Mexico's most powerful cartel. He gave up the whereabouts 
of certain cartel figures. He provided names of corrupt Mexican 
politicians as well as names, phone numbers and assets of various 
cartel lieutenants.

After Cardenas made his plea deal with the U.S. government, Guerrero 
Chapa was tasked with his biggest job. At the direction of his U.S. 
handlers and Cardenas, he set to out collect millions from the Zetas 
and the Gulf cartel in 2008 and 2009, according to federal government 

Documents show that Guerrero Chapa repeatedly leaned on high-ranking 
Zetas and Gulf cartel members to contribute money for the forfeiture. 
Some of the funds came from Cardenas' private stash.

While in power, Cardenas had feared that the U.S. government could 
take his money, so he mostly avoided U.S. banks, stashing the money 
beneath private homes and at ranches.

Guerrero Chapa gathered the money for the transfers from at least 
nine underground bunkers at homes in Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon.

Many of the cash exchanges occurred near the International Bridge 
that connects Reynosa to McAllen. Guerrero Chapa would drive north to 
the Mexican border town, his car loaded with suitcases stuffed with 
cash. U.S. law enforcement agents would take the money, sometimes 
barely checking it, and quickly return to the U.S., according to 
people familiar with the transactions.

Ranches and aircraft also were sold or surrendered for the U.S. 
forfeiture, documents show.

Guerrero Chapa coordinated the surrender of three Bell helicopters 
and one Cessna airplane to U.S. authorities, according to DEA 
documents. The aircraft were flown to Canada and stored in a hangar 
north of Vancouver, according to documents obtained by The News.

While cooperating with the U.S. government, Cardenas continued 
communicating with Gulf cartel and Zetas leaders through Guerrero 
Chapa, even promising to name one of them his successor, according to 
a former U.S. agent and a current U.S. agent knowledgeable about 
cartel intelligence matters.

For Zetas, doubts emerge

Even before the plea deal and the forfeiture, the Zetas leaders had 
developed doubts about Guerrero Chapa and his boss.

The Zetas had begun running their own drug loads. And mutual distrust 
and infighting had strained relations between the two organizations.

At one 2009 meeting, the Zetas' top leader, Heriberto Lazcano 
Lazcano, took Guerrero Chapa aside to tell him he "had his suspicions 
that he was being set up" by Cardenas, according to a DEA report as 
well as a former Gulf cartel leader who worked as one of Cardenas' 
top lieutenants.

Lazcano Lazcano said he had a contact inside the DEA who told him 
that Cardenas was "negotiating with the U.S. government by providing 
information on him," the report said. Guerrero Chapa told Lazcano 
Lazcano he was "way off base."

Lazcano Lazcano warned Guerrero Chapa that if he were ever captured 
as a result of Cardenas' efforts, "then an internal war would begin 
between Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, which the Gulf Cartel could 
not win," according to a DEA report.

Lazcano Lazcano also told him that the Zetas leader's near-arrest by 
the Mexican military in San Luis Potosi shortly after speaking with 
the new Gulf cartel leader, Jorge Eduardo "El Coss" Costilla Sanchez, 
was "very suspicious," the DEA report says.

Lazcano Lazcano said he hid in "the brush" for three days and later 
confirmed through his DEA contact that the U.S. government was 
tracking his phone, according to the report.

"At the conclusion of the meeting, however, Lazcano Lazcano did agree 
to turn over $10 million to Guerrero Chapa, in eight days, to 
assist," the report said.

Secret sentencing

In 2010, a federal judge in Houston sentenced Cardenas to 25 years in 
prison, far fewer than other drug kingpins got for comparable crimes. 
In all, 12 of the 17 counts were dismissed as part of the agreement.

On the day of his sentencing, Cardenas appeared unusually meek, 
according to law enforcement officials at the hearing. The sentencing 
took place behind locked doors and before U.S. District Judge Hilda G. Tagle.

Only Cardenas' wife and daughter and a handful of federal agents were 
present, along with four lawyers.

Judges often seal documents in drug and terrorism cases to protect 
informants and ongoing investigations. But closing a sentencing 
hearing for security reasons is highly unusual. The government argued 
that it was necessary due to the possibility of an attack on the 
courthouse if it were known that Cardenas was there.

Tagle ruled that failing to close the hearing to the public would 
"result in a substantial probability that the lives and safety of 
persons will be placed in danger and that ongoing investigations will 
be jeopardized."

A high-ranking original member of the Zetas, Jesus Enrique Rejon 
Aguilar, would later testify in a different case that the Zetas were 
loyal to Cardenas until February 2010, when the plea deal was 
revealed at his sentencing.

Aguilar, a former Mexican police officer, said the $50 million the 
Zetas provided was "for him [Cardenas] to use in the United States to 
lower his sentence."

The Zetas hadn't imagined Cardenas would also provide information 
that would help the U.S. government disrupt their business operations.

Asset forfeiture is not supposed to influence a defendant's 
punishment. But when details of Cardenas' forfeiture were discussed 
in court during Aguilar's case, a federal judge questioned whether 
there was such a link.

U.S. District Judge Barbara J. Rothstein, the judge in the Aguilar 
case, asked about the Cardenas forfeiture and Aguilar's claim that 
the money was sent to help reduce Cardenas' sentence, according to 
court records.

"Are we going to let that stay just the way it is on the record?" she asked.

Rothstein asked the prosecutor if he knew that to be true. He said he did not.

"It leaves a certain implication that one would like to have cleared 
up," Rothstein said. "I hope that wasn't the case."

On paper, the forfeiture was $50 million. But Cardenas actually 
forked over tens of millions more, a large chunk of his total net 
worth, estimated at $1.1 billion, according to the former top Gulf 
cartel lieutenant.

Cardenas, locked up in Colorado, will be 68 when his prison term ends in 2035.

Plea deals defended

After the sentencing, the Zetas formally split from the Gulf cartel, 
a move that sparked one of the bloodiest periods in Mexico's drug 
violence. Among the casualties: migrants from Mexico and Latin 
America. In 2010, Mexican authorities discovered the bodies of 72 
migrants killed by the Zetas, who apparently suspected them of being 
recruits for the Gulf cartel.

Months later, the Zetas intercepted several more buses with migrants 
on board and kidnapped some, turning some into hitmen and executing 
193 at a ranch near San Fernando.

Weeks after the casino fire in Monterrey killed 52 in August 2011, 
authorities discovered 49 decapitated bodies along a highway.

"You have internal fights; you have power grabs between organizations 
and within organizations," said Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican 
ambassador to the U.S. "The consequence is violence and more violence 
because new leadership seeks to assert itself, and it is fighting for 
control of those organizations."

Some U.S. officials defend the U.S. approach to battling cartels and 
deny that it heightened bloodshed. They blame Mexico's corruption and 
weak rule of law and say that the mayhem would have been even worse 
if the U.S. hadn't assisted its armed forces.

They also defend plea deals, asset forfeitures and informants as a 
necessary evil in dismantling cartels and investigating organized 
crime in general.

"Sure you can criticize the approach; it's not without its 
shortcomings," said Tony Garza, U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 2002 
to 2009. "But don't you think if there was a perfect way of taking 
these groups out, it would have been tried? As long as Mexico's rule 
of law is weak, that cycle is going to repeat itself."

Arturo Fontes, a former FBI agent who had a key role in carrying out 
U.S. anti-drug strategy in the Laredo area, put it this way: "These 
organizations, Zetas and the Gulf cartel, would have taken several 
years to disrupt, but when a cartel is divided, fighting against each 
other, that helps the governments come in and pick up the scraps. ... 
Our strategy was simple: divide and conquer."

But some experts question whether a plea agreement for such a 
notorious drug kingpin is good policy.

"A reduced sentence for someone like Osiel [Cardenas], who 
contributed to the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of people, may 
not be worth it," said Eric Olson, a specialist on organized crime at 
the Washington, D.C.-based Woodrow Wilson Center.

Olson said U.S. prosecutors don't take into account the rights of 
victims in other countries. A U.S. prosecutor, for example, might 
agree to a reduced sentence for a drug trafficker involved in the 
deaths of many Mexicans to get information about a drug ring in 
Dallas, Olson said.

"Is this fair to the Mexican victims? Probably not, but the system 
isn't set up to take that into account," he said.

Mexico's strategy, with backing from the U.S., has been to target the 
cartels by killing or arresting the top leaders, an approach that 
experts say has contributed to the climate of lawlessness and 
violence. This same approach, sometimes referred to as the kingpin 
strategy, brought down the mafia in the U.S. in the 1960s and drug 
cartels in Colombia in the 1990s, experts say. But it comes with a price.

"The flaw in the kingpin strategy is that at the end of the day 
you're only creating vacuums, and when that happens, all and any 
vacuums inevitably get filled," said Sarukhan, the former Mexican ambassador.

Garza, the former U.S. ambassador, conceded that the approach could be messy.

"Look, every time you take out a kingpin, you create a void, a moment 
when succession and control of the ' plaza' are in play," he said. 
"And that means there will be blood, and often lots of it, but what's 
the alternative? Casting your lot with the kingpins?"

Today, violence in some parts of Mexico has ebbed, though cities like 
Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo remain largely under the control of the 
Zetas and remnants of the Gulf cartel.

Defeating the cartels, however, has proved elusive. Regions of Mexico 
remain gripped by fear and violence, as the number of criminal groups 
has skyrocketed from about five major cartels in the mid-2000s to an 
estimated 80 smaller criminal groups today, according to Mexico's 
attorney general's office. And the killings continue, with dozens 
reported in recent weeks along the Tamaulipas-Texas border.

Even in regions where the violence has ebbed, new threats have 
emerged. The conflict today isn't just about illicit drugs but also 
extortion rackets, kidnappings, migrant smuggling and piracy. 
Criminal groups routinely tap gasoline pipelines and intercept fuel 
trucks, siphoning off millions of dollars in stolen gasoline each year.

A hit in Southlake

Guerrero Chapa allegedly was allowed to move large quantities of 
drugs from Mexico to the U.S. while under the watchful eye of his 
U.S. handlers - all while keeping a low profile at his new home in 
Southlake, according to confidential court documents.

A 2011 DEA report summarized information from a confidential source 
about Guerrero Chapa's alleged drug activities.

"An individual identified as Juan Guerrero Chapa assists ... with the 
transportation of cocaine from Mexico to the United States," the 
report said. "Also, Guerrero Chapa works with a group of individuals 
identified as Los Barretas," based in Reynosa, who smuggle "large 
quantities of marijuana and cocaine" to the U.S.

Around that time, Guerrero Chapa purchased a $1.2 million Southlake 
mansion under an alias. The sellers were paid in cash.

Shortly before 7 p.m. on May 22, 2013, Guerrero Chapa and his wife 
were finishing a shopping trip at Southlake's Town Square. As she put 
their bags in their Range Rover, a white Toyota Sequoia pulled up 
behind them. A masked gunman stepped out, walked over to the 
passenger side of their SUV where Guerrero Chapa sat, and shot him 
multiple times with a 9 mm pistol.

A cellphone video taken by a passer-by moments after the attack 
captures the horror. Guerrero Chapa's wife screams in disbelief as 
her husband lies across the front seats after an apparent attempt to 
escape the gunfire.

Three Mexican citizens were arrested more than a year later and 
charged with interstate stalking resulting in death and aiding and 
abetting in the murder.

Jesus Gerardo LedezmaCepeda and his son, Jesus Gerardo 
Ledezma-Campano Jr., 32, were arrested in McAllen, officials said. 
Ledezma-Cepeda's cousin, Jose Luis CepedaCortes, 59, a legal U.S. 
resident with a green card, was arrested at his Edinburg home. 
Ledezma-Cepeda and Cepeda-Cortes are scheduled to go to trial April 
25 in Fort Worth.

The men made several trips across the border to North Texas to stalk 
Guerrero Chapa while staying in a rented Grapevine apartment, 
officials said. They used at least eight rented and purchased cars. A 
camera set up in Guerrero Chapa's neighborhood captured him driving 
his Range Rover, which also had a tracking device attached 
underneath. And cameras were aimed at his home.

The killers have not been apprehended or publicly identified.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom