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Posted on Fri, Feb. 09, 2007

Boldness, violence kept drug kingpin atop Mexican cartel

Associated Press

HOUSTON - Osiel Cardenas-Guillen could easily be mistaken for a bureaucrat. But the short man with a receding hairline and a forgettable face had a penchant for grotesque violence and ruby-encrusted handguns as leader of the Gulf drug cartel, federal agents say.

Court documents filed when Cardenas-Guillen was extradited to the United States last month reveal some of the brutal tactics and corruption that investigators say went into his business moving drugs along the billion-dollar smuggling route from Mexico to Texas.

Federal agents say Cardenas-Guillen, who seized the leadership of the cartel from Juan Garcia Abrego when Garcia Abrego was imprisoned in the U.S., employed former Mexican special forces soldiers who called themselves the Zetas and tortured, beat and beheaded rivals and police.

Cardenas-Guillen faces trial in Houston, accused in a Brownsville indictment of drug smuggling, threatening U.S. federal agents and of being responsible for much of the violence that has plagued the Texas-Mexico border.

His new defense attorney, Mike Ramsey, said Friday that Cardenas-Guillen was "in good spirits," but declined further comment. Ramsey has defended Enron founder Ken Lay and Robert Durst, the New York real estate heir acquitted of killing his neighbor.

Cardenas-Guillen had been sent to a prison near Mexico City, but continued to run the Gulf Cartel from a relatively luxurious cell with impunity. Frustrated, Mexican officials extradited Cardenas-Guillen, three other kingpins and about a dozen lesser cartel soldiers to the United States to face charges.

"He authorized the murder of countless rivals. He killed his way up the ladder to lead the Gulf cartel," Karen Tandy, chief of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, told reporters after Cardenas-Guillen's extradition last month.

He earned the nickname "the friend-killer" for his willingness to murder people within his own cartel, court documents said. And he favored a gold-plated .45-caliber pistol whose grips were decorated with ruby-encrusted panthers and skulls.

Investigators believe that at its height, Cardenas-Guillen's cartel had cells in Houston, Chicago, Atlanta and other cities and moved four to six tons of cocaine per month into the United States.

An Atlanta safe houses collected about $41 million in drug money in one five-month stretch, according to court records. The money eventually made it back to Mexico.

"He's one of the biggest of the big fish," said George W. Grayson, a professor of Latin American politics at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

Cardenas-Guillen and his men are accused of surrounding DEA and FBI agents who were in Matamoros, Mexico, to talk to an informant in 1999.

"You gringos, this is my territory," he was quoted as telling the agents, according to law enforcement officials. "You can't control it, so get the hell out of here."

"Our brave agents avoided death only by talking their way out of this situation," Tandy said.

The following year, U.S. authorities offered a $2 million reward for his arrest.

Cardenas-Guillen's Zetas were the first paramilitary group to join a drug cartel.

The Zetas, whose name is radio code for a military commander, helped him gain control of Nuevo Laredo, considered to be a prime smuggling route for the flow of drugs from Mexico into the United States, and a sister city of Laredo, Texas.

Cardenas-Guillen reigned over the city until his arrest in March 2003, according to court documents. Like many organized crime lords, he used his money to insinuate himself into the communities he controlled. From his prison cell in Mexico, he financed a Children's Day party, complete with toys and cake, in Piedras Negras, a small city across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass, Texas.

But he also continued running his cartel from inside the top-security La Palma prison west of Mexico City.

"Prison is just another place (for cartels) to do business in," said W. Wesley Johnson, associate dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University.

Mexican federal prisons allowed traffickers to hold long cartel business meetings and have access to such luxuries as stereos, televisions, cell phones, as well as weapons, according to a report last year by the Washington Office on Latin America, a policy and research group.

Cardenas-Guillen "retained control of the Gulf cartel thanks to these conditions and to the loyalty of the Zetas," the report said.

But imprisonment did loosen his grip on the Gulf cartel.

Sensing weakness in the Gulf cartel after his arrest, the rival Sinaloa cartel tried to take over Nuevo Laredo, sparking a bloody and ongoing turf battle.

In that battle, the Zetas beat, beheaded, tortured and kidnapped rival drug traffickers and Mexican police officers, including some U.S. citizens. One of the Zetas' favorite tactics was to throw victims into barrels filled with diesel or gasoline and then light them on fire.

The Zetas were blamed for the June 2005 murder of Nuevo Laredo Police Chief Alejandro Dominguez, who was gunned down six hours after being sworn into office.

"The violence was unprecedented. I was born and raised here. I've never seen it escalate to such a degree," said Sheriff Rick Flores of Webb County, which includes Laredo.

In fighting the Sinaloa cartel, Cardenas-Guillen formed an alliance with fellow inmate Benjamin Arellano Felix, former leader of the Tijuana cartel.

Grayson called Cardenas-Guillen's extradition last month an important first step by new Mexican President Felipe Calderon in his efforts to crackdown on the cartels.

"It had appeared that Cardenas-Guillen was an intocable (an untouchable)," he said.

Flores said the extradition has created an uneasy silence along the border as the Gulf cartel leadership is reorganized.

"We don't know what's up ahead," he said. "As far as the narco trafficking, that is not going to stop," he said. "But if you curtail the brutality of the violence, it's going to change and change for the better."