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.

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 Soto la Marina indicated  a recent change in the world’s drug-trafficking patterns. Colombian cocaine used to enter the U.S. through Florida, but fifteen or so years ago a crackdown by U.S. drug authorities along the Florida coastline caused Colombian traffickers to abandon their old shipping routes. Americans consume about $49 billion worth of illegal drugs every year, and most of it now passes through Mexico before being distributed. About 330 tons of cocaine are estimated to move through that country every year. This commerce has led to the rise of about twenty Mexican drug-trafficking organizations. Most of the drugs are moved by the three largest groups: the Baja cartel, based in Tijuana; the Juárez cartel, based in Ciudad Juárez; and García Abrego’s Gulf cartel in Matamoros. At first the Mexican traffickers were no more than intermediaries, but their power grew as the Colombian cartels became more dependent on the Mexican distribution networks. Eventually many of the middlemen grew into full-blown traffickers themselves. After the leaders of these organizations realized that it was more profitable to respect one another’s turf, they joined forces and became known collectively as the Mexican Federation.

Schooled in the art of spiriting goods across the border, García Abrego was ready when the Colombians arrived. He had built his empire in the traditional fashion: He forced early rivals to cut him in on their business or else he eliminated them. His rise to power included some legendary scenes, such as the time when gunmen working for him invaded a medical clinic in Matamoros and mowed down Casimiro Espinoza, or Cacho, a rival drug dealer working in the same territory. Once García Abrego assumed authority over the narcotics moving through Matamoros, he worked out a deal with his Colombian friends: He would deliver half of every shipment to representatives of the Cali cartel within the United States, and he would keep the other half as payment for getting the drugs across the border. “It was a partnership,” testified Tony Ortiz, one of García Abrego’s primary U.S. distributors, at García Abrego’s trial. “[T]he Colombians would deliver four thousand kilos into Mexico. We split: two thousand kilos for them, two thousand kilos for us.”

Eventually García Abrego’s operation grew to the point where it was pulling in $2 billion a year, according to U.S. prosecutors. He collected ranches all over the states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo León and displayed his wealth by taking private planes to horse races in the south of Mexico. One of his nicknames was la Muneca, or the Doll, because he was such a sharp dresser. He was often found with friends at the Drive Inn in downtown Matamoros, drinking Chivas Regal in the restaurant’s gold-wallpapered, casinolike atmosphere, wearing an aristocrat’s white linen jacket.

North to the Rio Grande

To avoid complications, Garcia Abrego was rarely found in the same place as his cocaine shipments. Among the small group he trusted to oversee the handling of the merchandise in Soto la Marina was Carlos Reséndez, a former comandante in the state police force of Tamaulipas. “I helped to unload several planes loaded with cocaine,” Reséndez said when he took the witness stand at García Abrego’s trial. “We unloaded the cocaine, we lowered the cans … where they carried their spare gasoline. We filled them back [up], and we refueled the plane with gasoline so they could get back.”

Workers then loaded the duffel bags into Cessna 206’s. From Soto la Marina, pilots flew the cocaine north, to other ranches that García Abrego owned along the Rio Grande around Matamoros. There García Abrego relied on two notorious henchmen to get the cocaine into

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