Rafael “Junior” Cardenas Vela was the plaza boss for the Gulf Cartel in San Fernando, Mexico.
BROWNSVILLE — The first order of business for the Gulf Cartel’s San Fernando, Mexico, plaza boss was to stack the deck, he said. That meant meetings with local and federal police, the mayor, and even newspapers and TV.
In continuing testimony Friday, Rafael “Junior” Cardenas Vela described how he ruled over the city in Tamaulipas, where even topless dancers were on the take, paid to spy on drunken players leaking drug-world secrets. As for U.S. authorities, there always was a Border Patrol agent or Customs officer to be bought, he said, adding: “All of them had to work for me.”
The nephew of U.S.-imprisoned Gulf Cartel kingpin Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, testified how he had to “put his own people” in City Hall and police headquarters, and make sure the Mexican newspapers didn’t “meddle” or “publish anything of me.”
Cardenas Vela, a heavyset man of 39, is hoping his testimony against cartel rival Juan Roberto “Primo” Rincon-Rincon will save him prison time, laid out the workings of the cartel in a matter-of-fact, at times jovial, tone.
Prosecutors hope his testimony will convict Rincon-Rincon as a high-ranking Gulf Cartel operative who trafficked in a cross-border cocaine and marijuana operation between 2002 and 2011.
His lawyer is trying to show he was just a low-level player who fled for his life after Osiel successor Jorge Eduardo “El Cos” Costilla Sánchez put him in charge of the Rio Bravo “plaza,” or trafficking corridor.
The defense is set to cross-examine Cardenas Vela when testimony resumes Tuesday.
Cardenas Vela seemed unfazed about detailing the underworld to the jury.
“That’s the way it is over there,” he told them. “The one in charge of the plaza is the one who is going to control the city.”
That meant a monopoly over every bale of marijuana and brick of cocaine that came through a key zone north of a federal drug checkpoint where frequent leadership transfers made bribing difficult.
Cocaine came from the port city of Tampico in planeloads of 500 kilograms, landing at airstrips Cardenas Vela had carved into the brush of remote ranch and hunting lands.
Caravans of armored Suburbans carried bosses from the northern plazas, lieutenants of Costilla’s that he said included Rincon-Rincon.
The highways were cleared for the passage, part of the cooperation that earned the head of a local police force about 100,000 pesos, or $7,800 a month, a low-level officer the equivalent of $388 a week and a member of the media $1,550 to $3,876 monthly.
“Soldiers” were recruited from the police and highway patrol, from the military, and from the street, trained for months in “academies,” and outfitted with weapons and garb that cost about $8,000 each.
The cartel funded mayoral campaigns, “so if you want to change this one in police, this one in traffic, he would be under my orders.”
Marijuana, code-called “nacional,” came by river. Cocaine came over bridges. Illegal immigrants were crossed in separate areas than drug shipments.
“Plazas” were color-coded so as not to reveal goings-on over radio or phone conversations — of which the top guns never partook. The busiest, and most lucrative, ones were by the border: Matamoros, Control, Rio Bravo and Reynosa.
On a giant magnetic bulletin board, Cardenas Vela put pictures of faces in place on the cartel hierarchy starting in 2002, when Osiel ruled over three main divisions led by Costilla, Ezequiel “Tony Tormenta” Cárdenas Guillén, and Heriberto “El Lazca” Lazcano Lazcano.
Tormenta, Osiel’s brother and Cardenas Velas’ uncle, was assassinated in 2010. Laczano broke off to form the Zetas, turning Osiel’s branch of special forces into a ruthless competitor that has since taken over San Fernando and other smuggling areas.
Cardenas Vela and Rincon-Rincon had been childhood friends, but Rincon-Rincon was loyal to Costilla while Cardenas Vela sought to wrest control over a camp he said was pulling stunts, such as stealing armored bank cars, that he said was putting heat on what had been a well-organized drug business..
The board emptied of faces as battles with the Zetas and the Mexican military under Mexican President Felipe Calderón raged in the years leading up to 2011, when both Cardenas Vela and Rincon-Rincon, by then allegedly the Rio Bravo plaza boss, found themselves fleeing to the United States.
Cardenas Vela, caught in a traffic stop in Port Isabel, entered a plea deal in March.
“The government was really after me, chasing me, wanted to catch me,” Cardenas Vela said of his reasons for leaving Mexico. “I couldn’t find any place to hide.”