Anatomy of a Drug Cartel

The trial of Juan García Abrego showed how Mexican kingpins smuggle Colombian cocaine to American cities—and how Texas banks wind up with some of the profits.

You won’t find drug trafficker Juan Garcia Abrego at the Piedras Negras Restaurant in Matamoros anymore, but he used to hang around there all the time. These days you will find only his uncle Juan N. Guerra, who holds court in the back of the restaurant most mornings, beginning around ten. When I went there last June, the old man had not yet arrived, but people were already waiting to ask favors of him, as they have done for years. They looked like honest men, farmers with dirt under their fingernails, and they sat in respectful silence at the blue leather booths. They looked humble too, but in this place they were cloaked in an air of bloody machismo, thanks to the paintings of racehorses and cockfights that hung on the walls. Norteño music drifted through the room, periodically interrupted by crashes from the kitchen and the warbles of small green birds in a wire cage.

By ten-thirty the restaurant was nearly full. Guerra uses a wheelchair to get around, and when he finally arrived, he was pushed into the restaurant by his driver. As he motioned hello to the faces he knew, he looked harmless and feeble, just another old man with age spots and thinning white hair. Yet for years Guerra has constituted the unofficial government of Matamoros, Mexico, where corruption spills out over the streets like bougainvillea and hibiscus. He has never run for public office, but he wields more power than most who have. Exactly how he acquired this stature is unclear. There are old stories of murders he has been accused of committing, and these tales, apocryphal or not, do much to bolster his image as a strongman. Even more important than any long-ago bloodshed, however, is the respect that Guerra commands because he is wealthy. His business enterprises include an international trucking company, and he has always been rumored to be involved in smuggling. Among the contraband members of his family have peddled are auto parts and household appliances, and probably liquor.

In all likelihood, it was in this very room that Juan García Abrego learned many of the lessons that helped him establish one of Mexico’s largest drug cartels. Years ago García Abrego adopted his successful uncle as a surrogate father. His parents were lowly tenant farmers, but growing up along the banks of the Rio Grande, his overweening ambition fed by the border’s hypermaterialistic culture, García Abrego aspired to greater things. After apprenticing himself to his uncle, García Abrego cast off his lot as a factory worker at a Nabisco plant and amassed a fortune, ostensibly through legitimate trucking enterprises. But his fortune was not legitimate, and his trucks did not haul just ordinary goods. Until he was sentenced to life imprisonment in a Houston courtroom last January, García Abrego, age 53, ran the Gulf cartel, an organization that still controls practically all of the narcotics that pass into the United States through Matamoros. Along with similar organizations formed elsewhere on the border, the Gulf cartel has sent billions of dollars of cocaine into the U.S., sowed unprecedented corruption of Mexican politicians, and flooded Texas banks with drug money. Attorney General Dan Morales estimates that $30 billion a year in drug money is laundered through Texas banks—fully 20 percent of the estimated $150 billion a year in drug money laundered worldwide. Juan García Abrego learned his uncle’s lessons well.

Now a series of cases prosecuted in Houston offers a rare look inside García Abrego’s operation. The cases map out exactly how a drug cartel works, as well as how tainted money subsequently makes its way into Texas banks. In a nutshell, the drugs go north and the money comes south. Cocaine from Colombia moves through Mexico, across the border into Texas, and from there to various cities in the U.S. After the cocaine is sold, the cartel hauls the proceeds south again in eighteen-wheeler trucks, moving vans, and tractor trailers. The cartel smuggles the cash into Mexico and finally sneaks it into the U.S. banking system. Over the past decade tens and perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars of the Gulf cartel’s money has moved through Texas banks.

In other words, the same wrinkled $5 bill used to buy crack on the streets of New York eventually makes its way into the hands of a Texas banker in a pin-striped suit. Most of the bankers who handle the dirty money do so with ignorance, and they commit no crime. But these staggering sums raise a question: Are some of the bankers willfully blind to their roles in the creation of the trading empires of men like Juan García Abrego?

Soto la Marina

The story of the gulf cartel’S far-flung operations begins in an unlikely place. Soto la Marina is a 250-year-old village thirty miles from the Gulf of Mexico, about 125 miles south of Brownsville. Starting in the mid-eighties, however, it entered the modern world of international commerce, when García Abrego bought half a dozen large cattle ranches in the area. Soon the sounds of airplanes were disrupting the isolation, as Turbo Commanders appeared in the sky, circled a few times, and bumped along dirt landing strips. After the planes lurched to a halt, ranch hands were waiting, ready to unload the large green duffel bags. Padlocks concealed the contents from thieves or spies, and perhaps the men of Soto la Marina never knew what they were unloading. If the veil was ever pulled aside, if someone whispered that the duffel bags were full of bricks of cocaine, they were smart enough to go about their business as if they had never heard.

The one-kilogram bricks were bundled in burlap sacks or wrapped in brown bags, and they often bore the label “ Gordos,” Spanish for “heavy” or “fat.” This was one of several labels used by the Cali cartel of Colombia—a group renowned for its high-quality merchandise, which is more than 80 percent pure. The presence of Colombian cocaine in

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