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.

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 the United States. One of them, Luis Medrano, got his start in the drug trade working for one of García Abrego’s former competitors in Matamoros. The other was Oscar Malherbe. His nickname is el Compadre, and street talk suggests that he started out as a hit man.

Medrano and Malherbe were always found together, and they oversaw activities in Matamoros from a walled compound patrolled by six to eight armed men. Mexican law enforcement agents gave the gang plenty of leeway, for reasons that became clear at García Abrego’s trial. “We pay off the government officials, the agents in charge of that region or that area,” explained Ortiz. “Narcotics agents, federal agents that worked with the Justice Department in Mexico.” Among the high-ranking officials identified as taking bribes from García Abrego were Emilio López-Parra, a comandante with the Federal Judicial Police in Matamoros; Luis Esteban García Villalón, an agent with the Federal Ministry; and Javier Coello Trejo, a deputy attorney general in the Mexican attorney general’s office. Recalling a conversation he had with García Abrego, Reséndez explained, “He told me they had to receive a monthly installment—that Javier Coello Trejo, Luis Esteban García Villalón, and Emilio López-Parra had fixed a quota of a million and a half dollars every month.”

When asked more specifically what the public officials were being paid for, Reséndez said, “So they could turn the other way.” If García Abrego’s men wanted to move a major shipment of drugs into the United States, they waited until all the agents in the field received a prearranged call on their radios ordering them to return to headquarters for a meeting. After the area was cleared of law enforcement, workers drove the cocaine down to the Rio Grande in pickup trucks. They often floated the drugs across the river on rafts. Once on the other side, the cocaine was stored in safe houses the cartel had set up throughout the Rio Grande Valley, such as a modest white bungalow in Harlingen, where Department of Public Safety officers once found nine tons of cocaine packed in cardboard boxes, flour sacks, and duffle bags.

The Promised Land

To a degree, the corruption that the Gulf cartel and its sister organizations spread throughout Mexican society crossed over into the United States, where low-ranking government employees have been found on the cartels’ payrolls. Growing reports of vice along the border have led elected officials to call for congressional hearings and law enforcement agents

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