American youths did Mexican drug cartel's dirty work

Court records describe how Zetas gave money, instructions to hit men
11:20 PM CST on Friday, November 9, 2007
By DAVID McLEMORE / The Dallas Morning News

LAREDO – Rosalio Reta killed his first man at age 13. He didn't like it much, he told police. The guy was tied up and kneeling. Mr. Reta just had to pick up a pistol and shoot him in the head.

Rosalio Reta "He told us that wasn't his style. There was no challenge," said Webb County Assistant District Attorney Jesus Guillen, who successfully prosecuted Mr. Reta for murder. "He preferred to run surveillance on a victim, pick the right moment and surprise him. Like he was playing Grand Theft Auto."

By July 28, 2006 – one day after his 17th birthday – when Laredo police charged him with the contract killing of Noe Flores in Laredo, Mr. Reta had been involved with 30 murders, Mexican and Texas investigators believed. All were on behalf of the Zetas, the ruthless enforcement arm of Mexico's Gulf Cartel drug smuggling operation.

His trial last summer for the Flores killing offered tantalizing glimpses into the shadowy workings of the Zetas and the inroads of cartel violence into this border city.

Court records revealed a portrait of a group of young American killers who were well-paid to do one thing: kill people the Zeta leadership in Nuevo Laredo wanted dead. And they highlighted a group of young killers who followed orders from Mexican drug lords with ruthless efficiency while often behaving like teens with poor impulse control.

Mr. Reta sought his own extradition for the murder. He called a DEA agent and Laredo homicide Detective Roberto Garcia from a prison in Mexico, saying he wanted to stand trial in Texas for two homicides.

He told U.S. investigators he feared reprisals from the Zetas over a botched hit in Monterrey – a grenade attack on one of the city's nightclubs that killed four and injured 25. He was supposed to kill only one person, police said, but had missed the target.

Laredo police had already identified Mr. Reta as one of three people responsible for the Flores killing. Their investigation had linked him to one of three three-member scicarias, or hit man cells, the Zetas had set up in Laredo.

They believed Mr. Reta was responsible for at least five killings in the city – either as a shooter or organizer.

After he was charged in Laredo, Mr. Reta gave a statement to Detective Garcia, detailing the Flores killing and his role in it.

Mr. Reta told police he drove on the night of Jan. 8, 2006, when his three-man cell hit Mr. Flores in a Laredo residential neighborhood.

He described how one of his cell members, Gabriel Cordona, walked up to Mr. Flores and calmly fired eight bullets into his body – three of them into his head. And he told how the third member, Jessie Hernandez, panicked and began firing while in the car, shooting out the rear window.

But the wrong guy got killed. Mr. Flores had no criminal history and was just visiting a family birthday party.

The Zeta commander for Nuevo Laredo – Miguel Treviño Morales, a fugitive wanted on five state warrants for murder, kidnapping and organized crime – was believed to have ordered a hit on Mike Lopez, Mr. Flores' step-brother.

Mr. Treviño was angry at Mr. Lopez for dating a woman he was interested in. A month after the Flores murder, on Feb. 26, 2007, another group of Zeta gunmen killed Mr. Lopez, according to Laredo police.

Cells on retainer

Much of the specifics of the inner workings of Zeta operations in Laredo came out during testimony of prosecution witness David Martinez, a former Zeta gunman serving a federal sentence for weapons violations.

He provided details on how the cartel set up three cells, composed of three people each, who were on retainer at $500 a week, just to wait for instructions. Sometimes they were called on to buy cars for gang use. Other times, to perform killings.

Orders were normally passed from Mr. Treviño, the Zeta commander known by the nickname "El Cuarenta," to Lucio Velez Quintero, another fugitive known as "El Viejón" and also wanted on murder, kidnapping and organized crime warrants. Mr. Velez would, in turn, pass the orders on to one of the cells, Mr. Martinez testified.

For a contract killing, the cell leader received $10,000 or more, which was to be spread among the other members.

On Dec. 8, 2005, according to investigators, Mr. Velez gave an order to Mr. Reta's cell to hit the next target: Moises Garcia, a gang member who had angered the cartel.

They tracked Mr. Garcia's white Lexus sedan to the parking lot of the Torta Mex Restaurant in Laredo. Mr. Reta got out, witnesses said, walked to the Lexus' driver side and shot Mr. Garcia five times in the face.

Mr. Reta received $10,000 and two kilos of cocaine for the Garcia hit, according to cell member Cordona, now serving 80 years for his role in the Flores killing.

The next time the Zetas called, it was to order the hit that resulted in Mr. Flores' murder.

No remorse

"We talked to him for hours about what he had done, and he never once showed any remorse," said assistant district attorney Guillen of Mr. Reta. "The funny thing is, as you talk to him, you start liking him. He's just a 5-3, scrawny little kid. He's bright, engaging and funny. He comes from a good, hardworking family of nine kids. Nothing in his background screams out 'criminal.'

"Half of you thinks, 'what a tragedy at so many levels this kid is.' But the other half looks at what he's done and you think there's something evil at work, that somehow, the morality switch never got turned on," Mr. Guillen said.

"He told us he liked the killing. It didn't make him sick," Mr. Guillen said. "He liked it. And for us to take that away from him was like taking candy from a baby."

Mr. Reta's trial ended abruptly – after just three days of testimony – when he quit cooperating with his attorney and pleaded guilty to murder for a 40-year sentence.

His conviction is now on appeal. His court-appointed attorney, Eduardo Peña, inserted in the plea agreement the right to appeal the inclusion of a damaging statement that Mr. Reta gave police even though a juvenile magistrate had not adequately informed Mr. Reta of his rights.

"The Zetas wanted him to shut up and do his time," Mr. Peña said. "They don't like outsiders knowing about their business. Rosalio wasn't too happy about the appeal. Neither, I understand, are the Zetas."

Mr. Reta is resigned to serve his time, Mr. Peña said.

"He was afraid the Zetas would go after his family," he said. "He knows it is a miracle if he can get out of this alive."

The appeal, now before the 4th Court of Appeals in San Antonio, alleges Mr. Reta's statement should never have been allowed at trial – specifically because a juvenile magistrate is supposed to provide suspects a thorough understanding of their rights.

Mr. Peña said the state's video showed that a magistrate was not present the entire time, "except walk in, sign some papers and leave. He was there at best for five minutes."

"After the ... [statement] was admitted into evidence, we didn't have a chance at acquittal. So I sought out a plea," Mr. Peña said. "Frankly, I was surprised the prosecutor accepted it with the provision for appeal."

Prosecutor is confident

But the appeal must also show whether the failure to follow procedure was harmful – that is, that it predominantly led jurors to convict. And assistant district attorney Guillen believes that this is where it will fail.

"I'm confident even if the appeals court sees it as judicial error, they'll still find it a harmless error," he said. "Even if they do order a new trial, we have enough evidence and testimony to get a conviction."

Mr. Guillen says the state took the plea for one reason: Mr. Reta's youth.

"We had a good circumstantial case, but ... he's young," Mr. Guillen said. "he looks like some little kid, and I had concern that if he connected with one compassionate juror, the case could go sour."

It's doubtful Mr. Reta will ever see the outside of a prison, Mr. Guillen said.

The Moises Garcia case is still to be tried, he said. "Besides, he's safer in prison," Mr. Guillen said of Mr. Reta. "If he ever gets out, the Zetas will kill him. They don't forget."

Mr. Guillen is still mystified as to why Mr. Reta went to trial and didn't just plead out initially like his colleague in crime, Mr. Cordona, who took the sentence because that's what the Zeta leaders told him to do.

"I feel like Reta was testing us by going to court," he said. "But after two days and everything came out about the Zetas and the cartel's operations, he clammed up."

'We've sent a message'

For too long, people refused to admit that the drug-fueled violence that erupted for several years across the Rio Grande in Nuevo Laredo couldn't happen on the U.S. side, he said.

"That violence did slip across the border, and we have to understand, these weren't murders being committed by illegal immigrants," Mr. Guillen said. "These were executions, committed by American kids. They speak English, they play video games and they look just like any kid you'll see in the mall. They just chose to get into the life the cartel offered of money and drugs and violence.

"With the police investigations and these murder prosecutions, we've put the three hit man cells out of business and we've sent a message across the river that we're not going to tolerate the cartel violence to come across to our town," Mr. Guillen said.

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