October 2018

The Cartel Next Door

Juan Guerrero Chapa was craving his favorite frozen yogurt. It was early in the evening on May 22, 2013, and he and his wife, Julia, left their Southlake home and drove a few minutes away to the sprawling, upscale shopping district known as Town Square. Around 6 p.m., they parked their burgundy Range Rover in front of Victoria’s Secret and strolled down the block to Yumilicious.

Guerrero, a 43-year-old with a ruddy face and slick black hair, was wearing crisp blue jeans and a black polo. Julia, her auburn hair pulled back into a ponytail, had on sandals, black pants, and a red blouse. They paid for their frozen yogurt, ate it on a bench in front of the store, and then headed down the block to Nine West, where Julia browsed for shoes. Nothing about the couple stood out among the denizens of Southlake.

A thirty-minute drive northwest of Dallas, the town of Southlake is one of the richest places in America. Many of its roughly 30,000 residents live in opulent walled-off subdivisions with names like Coventry Manor, Monticello, and the Enclave. Famous athletes are a common sight. PGA golfer Rory Sabbatini and former Dallas Cowboy DeMarcus Ware live here. The public schools are consistently ranked among the best in the country, and Southlake Carroll High School has one of the most storied football programs in the state. In the mid-aughts, when they won a string of state championships, their games were often broadcast nationally.

Juan Guerrero Chapa.
Juan Guerrero Chapa.

If the town itself represents the apotheosis of wealthy American suburbia, Town Square is its postcard-perfect centerpiece. Opened in the late nineties, the complex’s quaint brick architecture and old-fashioned street lamps are meant to evoke idyllic turn-of-the-century downtowns. In some ways, the image is fitting: crime in Southlake is a rarity. The police department averages one or two arrests a day, and most of them involve property theft, minor drug offenses, or the occasional public intoxication or DUI.

Guerrero and Julia had moved to Southlake two years earlier, into a roughly $1 million mansion. Though they didn’t have many friends in the area, they liked to spend evenings at Town Square, walking amid the stately oak trees and glimmering fountains.

It was still sunny at 6:45 p.m., when the couple left Nine West and headed back to their Range Rover. As Julia loaded her bag into the driver’s side back seat, Guerrero climbed into the front passenger seat. That’s when a white Toyota Sequoia pulled up behind them and a man got out with a 9mm pistol.

Witnesses would later tell police he was wearing a hoodie and that something—perhaps a bandanna—covered his face. The man approached the passenger side of the Range Rover, raised the pistol, and started firing. The first two shots came from behind Guerrero; one of them hit the frame of the rear window. The next seven went through the front passenger-side window, sprinkling the scene with tiny slivers of glass. As Guerrero turned and tried to scramble into the back seat, multiple shots entered his side and back. Then the shooter returned to the Toyota, and the driver sped away.

Guerrero slumped motionless between the Range Rover’s front seats, blood dripping from his mouth onto the tan leather. Julia, who was unharmed, raced over to her husband, stared silently for a brief moment, and then began screaming in both English and Spanish. Within seconds there were sirens, and a crowd gathered on the manicured lawn in front of a nearby gazebo. Police officers pushed away bystanders as EMTs pulled Guerrero from the car and tried to resuscitate him on the sidewalk across from Banana Republic. He was rushed to a hospital a few miles away, where he was pronounced dead.

Surveillance cameras around Town Square didn’t capture the murder or the face of the shooter, but they did record the suspects’ SUV coming and going. The entire encounter, from the time the Toyota pulled up behind the Range Rover until the moment it drove away, took less than ten seconds.

Guerrero’s Range Rover at Southlake’s Town Square on the day of the murder, May 22, 2013.

Guerrero’s Range Rover at Southlake’s Town Square on the day of the murder, May 22, 2013.

Officers on the scene on the day of the murder.

Officers on the scene on the day of the murder.

CBSDFW

Left:

Guerrero’s Range Rover at Southlake’s Town Square on the day of the murder, May 22, 2013.

Right:

Officers on the scene on the day of the murder.

CBSDFW

The brazenness of the crime shocked and titillated the residents of Southlake. There hadn’t been a murder in town in more than a decade—and nothing this dramatic had happened since Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow killed two state troopers nearby, in the thirties. “This sort of thing just doesn’t happen in a place like Southlake,” a Department of Justice official said.

Guerrero’s death was among the lead stories on every local news affiliate for three nights in a row. Fox 4 interviewed one woman who, marveling at the scope of the crime scene, explained that she had to leave her car in a parking lot as investigators examined the area. Another woman, standing by the town’s red brick courthouse, concluded, “It’s a very unsafe situation. Very unstable, and I hope they’re caught very soon.”

The afternoon after the shooting, Southlake police chief Steve Mylett told reporters what many had already concluded on their own: “Obviously, this is a well-orchestrated and deliberate act involving a specific target.” He said the crime appeared to be the work of “an organization that is trained to do this kind of activity.”

Mylett immediately called in help from the FBI and DEA, offering the agencies office space in the local police station, less than half a mile from where Guerrero had been shot. Days later the team was expanded to include representatives from the Texas Rangers, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. All told, there were dozens of officers and agents and analysts assisting the case. But it was largely headed by two men.

The lead investigator, Michael Elsey, is a 25-plus-year veteran FBI agent. He has a deep voice, an affinity for fine cigars, and a remarkable ability to evade media attention. One colleague described him as “the most focused person I’ve ever seen.” Another said, “I would never want to be on Mike’s bad side.”

The lead prosecutor, who worked closely with investigators from the start, was an assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas named Josh Burgess. Burgess is tall and lean, with a boyish face, and he has a far different reputation from Elsey. He’s funnier, more garrulous, more likely to grab a beer with his co-workers at the end of the week. At the time, he taught a weekly Sunday school class for young married couples at his church in Fort Worth. A former JAG officer in the Air Force who once deployed for six months to serve as the only attorney on a base in Kyrgyzstan, Burgess had spent most of his career at the U.S. attorney’s office prosecuting cases involving organized crime, including several that employed wiretaps and undercover agents. One case involved a yearlong undercover investigation of the Bandidos Motorcycle Club; another was a two-year case that led to more than sixty indictments.

Around 9 p.m. the night of the murder, Burgess was at home, reading a book in a recliner, when he was interrupted by a phone call. His counterpart at the U.S. attorney’s office in South Texas informed him that the man murdered in Southlake, whose face was already splashed across every local news channel, had been a high-level cooperator for the U.S. government. Burgess remembers thinking it wouldn’t take long for the press to break the news he’d just heard, bringing even more attention to the shooting. (Of the six DOJ officials dedicated to the case full-time, Burgess is the only one able to speak on the record about it.)

Little is publicly known about Guerrero’s upbringing and life in Mexico, but investigators quickly uncovered his deep ties to one of the most violent criminal organizations in the world. Guerrero, it turns out, was the longtime personal attorney for Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, the former leader of the Gulf Cartel and one of the founders of its paramilitary enforcement arm, Los Zetas. Cárdenas, whose nickname was El Mata Amigos (“the Friend Killer”), was arrested after a shoot-out with the Mexican military in 2003. He was then extradited to the U.S. in 2007 for drug trafficking, money laundering, and the attempted murder of U.S. agents. The cartel infighting that followed his arrest triggered a famously bloody power struggle that gripped Northern Mexico for a decade. Thousands of people, many of them innocent bystanders, died in the ensuing mayhem.

Two years after Cárdenas’s extradition, he pleaded guilty in federal court. In exchange for a 25-year sentence—and a chance to one day walk out of prison—Cárdenas agreed to turn over $50 million in cash, real estate, and aircraft to the U.S. government. Guerrero was tasked with helping the American agencies collect the assets, an ordeal that included moving several carloads of cash north across the border. Guerrero’s involvement wasn’t made public, but he was nonetheless a potential target; leaders of Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel were incensed about the Cárdenas plea deal.

And so, with the knowledge of the U.S. government, Guerrero and his family moved from Monterrey to North Texas. There, he continued cooperating with the Department of Homeland Security. The arrangement was kept so quiet that even high-ranking officials in the local U.S. attorney’s office didn’t know about it until after the murder.

In Texas, Guerrero lived a quiet but complicated life. His autopsy revealed that he had cocaine in his system at the time of his death. He kept a low profile online. His LinkedIn account claimed that he owned a working cattle ranch in the Mexican state of Guanajuato with “a wide range of livestock and farm animals,” including “some of Mexico’s strongest bulls.” It also described, in the third person, his affinity for “the regional flavors of the restaurants in his hometown” and his allegiance to Club León, a second-tier Mexican professional soccer team. A WordPress blog under his name featured three short posts in June 2011 about the Mexican cattle industry. His name was also listed in the paperwork of a few businesses in South Texas, including a gaming corporation and a salvage and recycling company.

The only public photo of him prior to the murder was a mug shot taken in Miami in 2011, in which his dark eyes are glazed and bloodshot, his cheeks bloated and pockmarked. According to a local news report, at around 3 a.m. local officers were dispatched to the posh Fontainebleau hotel, where Guerrero was accused of slapping the 29-year-old woman with whom he was having an affair.

In the spring of 2011, Guerrero was living with Julia and their three kids in Grapevine, just to the east of Southlake, when he got an urgent call from his handler at the Department of Homeland Security. Julia recalled her husband seeming “afraid” and “surprised” after the conversation. “They knew where he lived,” she said. “And they wanted to kill him.”

The family never again returned to the house in Grapevine. They traveled to South Florida, where his brother lived, for spring break, and when they got back to Grapevine, Guerrero told his wife to rent an apartment in her sister’s name and to stop using her cellphone to call Mexico. Soon after, they moved into the house in Southlake. It was purchased in cash, and Guerrero’s name didn’t appear anywhere in the county records.

Julia remembered her husband receiving another distressing call in February 2013, and he fled once again—this time moving from hotel to hotel, traveling to Las Vegas with his brother—but he resumed living with the family again in May. He continued to be cautious, though, she said. He didn’t leave the house often, except to get frozen yogurt.

The front passenger window of the vehicle, riddled with bullet holes.
The front passenger window of the vehicle, riddled with bullet holes.

Innocent victims are easy to pitch to a jury. But unfortunately for agents and prosecutors, they don’t get to pick the victims for whom they seek justice. If they did, Burgess certainly wouldn’t have chosen a cartel attorney. Then he got to know Julia, Guerrero’s wife of more than twenty years, and he was moved by her grief. “This was a strong, dignified woman,” Burgess says. “Whatever you think of him, Julia truly loved her husband. He was the father of her three teenage children. And she watched him get killed.”

Burgess and Elsey also recognized early on that this might turn out to be the biggest case of their careers, and the deeper they got into the investigation, the more fascinating it became. At first, though, there weren’t many leads. A palm print was taken from the side of Guerrero’s Range Rover, but investigators didn’t turn up any matches. They later found the white Toyota Sequoia used in the murder, which was left in a rental car parking lot, but that didn’t lead to much, either. A few weeks after the shooting, the case seemed to have stalled. That’s when FBI agents, for the first time, looked under Guerrero’s Range Rover. There, they discovered a black plastic box the size of a deck of cards: a GPS tracker.

When agents contacted the tracker’s manufacturer, Blackline, they were told that there were five other devices associated with the same account, including one still attached to Guerrero’s other car, a white Mercedes. The subscriber name on the Blackline account and the name used on the associated Gmail address turned out to be fake. But agents kept probing. They subpoenaed Google and located a secondary Gmail address, which eventually led them to an unlikely source: a bald, bespectacled, retired Verizon technician living near McAllen named José Cepeda Cortés. Most of his American friends called him Joe.

Joe, who was in his late fifties, was born in Mexico but had spent much of his adult life in the Rio Grande Valley (he held a green card). To those who knew him, he seemed straitlaced, prone to awkward goofiness and bad jokes. After retiring from telecommunications, he operated a sign business in the suburbs of McAllen. And in the fall of 2012, he and his two brothers appeared on the Spanish-language TV show Tengo Talento, Mucho Talento (“I Have Talent, a Lot of Talent”). They called themselves Los Pachucos,  a nod to the Latino zoot suit subculture, and, accordingly, dressed like forties gangsters, in brimmed hats and baggy colorful suits and suspenders. (Their performance received lukewarm reactions from the studio audience.)

When agents searched Joe’s emails, they didn’t discover any obvious links to drug cartels. But they did find records, dated in the months leading up to the murder, for car and property rentals in both North Texas and South Florida. They also came across several noteworthy exchanges with his cousin Jesús “Chuy” Ledezma Cepeda.

Chuy, agents soon learned, was a private investigator in a suburb of Monterrey, not far from where Guerrero lived before fleeing to America. Like Joe, he was in his late fifties, but the similarities stopped there. Chuy was shorter, stockier, and considerably more streetwise. For years, he had served as a police officer in Mexico. Then he worked with a clandestine security-intelligence force founded by the wealthy mayor of San Pedro Garza García, one of the most moneyed areas in all of Latin America. Chuy was also good friends with leaders of the Beltrán Leyva Organization, a cartel with mixed alliances that operates in the Mexican border state of Nuevo León, which meets McAllen at its eastern point and Laredo to the west.

Joe and Chuy had grown up on opposite sides of the border but stayed in touch through the years. In the email correspondence that caught the attention of agents, though, they weren’t simply catching up. It included links to Mexican blog posts that detailed Guerrero’s involvement with the Gulf Cartel. One post, which was later translated into English and entered into evidence by the U.S. government, alleged that Guerrero had once run over Mexican federal agents in order to avoid a subpoena. Another blog reported that Mexican soldiers, as part of an operation to stifle cartel operations, arrested Guerrero after “provoking the crash” of his vehicle. The story noted that he was later released.

Sifting through GPS data immediately preceding the murder, investigators realized they could connect Joe and Chuy to the crime scene in Southlake. In the days leading up to the shooting, a tracker from their Blackline account had often moved in tandem with one of Guerrero’s vehicles. At other times, the device was immobile, but it was stationed a few miles away at an apartment complex in Grapevine. When agents inspected the apartment’s records, they discovered that the lease was under Joe’s name. Chuy was also listed on the rental agreement, and there was a third name that investigators didn’t recognize: Jesús Ledezma Campano, also known as Gerardo. He turned out to be Chuy’s son.

Gerardo was around thirty, and, as agents learned, he had been assisting his father in his private investigation business—including the extrajudicial security work—since he was a teenager. Gerardo also owned a few businesses himself, including a nightclub and a smoke shop in San Pedro Garza García. Investigators now had their third suspect.

By this time, several months had passed since the murder. Chuy and Gerardo had long ago crossed back into Mexico, while Joe continued living in McAllen. And as much as they knew about the three men, agents still wanted to expand their investigation to determine who else might be involved. And so they hunkered down in the Southlake office.

He snapped a photo just as a middle-aged man in a polo shirt and dark slacks was climbing back into the Mercedes. In the picture, it’s clear that Guerrero is utterly unaware he’s being watched.

For months, they combed through the massive trove of emails and GPS data, and along the way they hopped on flights to Florida and Mexico to track down sources. They covered the office walls with a dizzying array of charts and maps. In scrutinizing the movements of the suspects, agents realized they could retrace the intricate workings of their operation. Gradually, painstakingly, they were able to reconstruct most of the elaborate sequence that had led to Guerrero’s murder.

The hunt for Guerrero began in June 2011, when Chuy received an email with orders to track down the attorney (investigators could not determine the source of the email). Soon thereafter, he began by scouring business records in Mexico. Over the course of several months, he also assembled a list of the attorney’s family members, on both sides of the border. He managed to find phone records for several relatives. At one point, using a trick taught to him by Joe, whose telecommunications expertise proved invaluable, Chuy apparently listened in on some of the relatives’ calls. He and Gerardo also submitted applications for U.S. travel visas.

Chuy further enlisted Joe’s help the following year. In November 2012, while rehearsing for Tengo Talento, Mucho Talento, Joe began nosing around the website publicdata.com using a newly created email address. There, he discovered Guerrero’s Miami arrest report. He then scouted out the home address of Guerrero’s brother, Armando, who lived in Wellington, a well-to-do suburb near West Palm Beach.

Chuy and Gerardo soon used their recently acquired U.S. travel visas to fly with Joe to South Florida. When they arrived in early December, the three men approached a local realtor about leasing a property in Olympia, the gated community where Armando resided. Joe, who spoke the best English, did most of the talking, explaining that they were in town to install surveillance cameras at a nearby hospital. To show off the neighborhood’s amenities, the realtor met them at the lavish clubhouse, equipped with a spa and kiddie water park. But the men were uninterested. They just wanted to see properties, they said.

When they arrived at the first house, they didn’t bother to look around much before agreeing to rent it. Their application, however, was denied because they hadn’t supplied enough financial information. Joe filled out two other applications that were also denied. Eventually they secured a house in the neighborhood bordering Olympia. Rent was $2,400, and they made the first payment in cash. The realtor stopped by sometime later, and she found it odd that, other than a couch and a chair, the three-thousand-square-foot house was still empty.

The men spent most of December tailing Guerrero’s brother Armando, hoping he would lead them to Guerrero. Because the gate to Olympia was manned, they had to enter his subdivision using a pedestrian walkway. Chuy installed a GPS tracker under Armando’s car, but the device’s batteries lasted only a few days. It was less cumbersome, not to mention much faster, to swap out the entire device than to change the batteries, so over time they would put several trackers in play (to tell them apart, they put distinctive stickers on each device). Sometimes, they competed to see who could switch the trackers the fastest.

Chuy had it down to a science. He’d go for a stroll along the neighborhood sidewalks, amble right up to Armando’s house, then stop and stoop over behind his vehicle, pretending to tie his shoes. He did this repeatedly for weeks and never got caught. But he didn’t catch the slightest glimpse of Guerrero. The men gave up on tracking Armando and returned home for the holidays.

The hunt resumed in earnest in February 2013, at which point Joe and Chuy began exchanging frequent emails, sharing anything they turned up on Guerrero, including the blog posts about his cartel activities. After a few weeks, Joe sent a message containing the property tax records of Guerrero’s sister-in-law, Laura Martinez, who lived in Grapevine. His note featured an unusual subject line: “Litmus Test.”

Later in court, Burgess would ask Elsey, the FBI agent, what he thought Joe meant by “Litmus Test.” “Well,” Elsey said, “I guess you can go to Google. ‘A decisively indicative test’ is what they would say. I would say it’s more of a make-it-or-break-it kind of moment.”

In early March Chuy and Gerardo crossed the border into McAllen and then drove the more than five hundred miles from there to Grapevine. Joe arranged for them to stay in an apartment complex near Martinez’s house called Colonial Village. Gerardo would later say that, unlike the swanky Florida rental, it was relatively inexpensive, and “they don’t ask too much questions.”

Using the same tactics they’d employed in Wellington, they affixed a GPS tracker onto Martinez’s car. On occasion, they would tail her in a rental car. Other times, they stayed at the apartment and used a tablet to follow the tracker’s movements on a map in real time. It was tedious work, and for the first few weeks their surveillance yielded little. But in the last week of March, Martinez did something unusual. She stopped at a house in Southlake, a few miles away from her home, two days in a row. Things moved quickly after that.

On April 1 Chuy sent Joe a photo of Guerrero’s burgundy Range Rover. On April 2, he sent a photo of his white Mercedes, and, that same day, Joe caught a flight up from McAllen. They placed trackers on both of Guerrero’s vehicles, and they later installed a pair of game cameras—the type that hunters use to track deer—near the entrance to Guerrero’s neighborhood and on a utility pole at the edge of his front yard. Using the cameras, which are equipped with night vision and motion sensors, Chuy, Joe, and Gerardo took several photos of the house, often with the car of Guerrero’s teenage daughter parked out front.

One day, Chuy was shadowing the white Mercedes as it traveled to the DFW Lakes Hilton, a four-star conference hotel in Grapevine. Chuy waited in the parking lot for the driver to return to the car. He snapped a photo just as a middle-aged man in a polo shirt and dark slacks was climbing back into the Mercedes. In the picture, it’s clear that Guerrero is utterly unaware he’s being watched.

Josh Burgess outside the federal courthouse in Fort Worth on August 29, 2018.

Josh Burgess outside the federal courthouse in Fort Worth on August 29, 2018.

Photograph by Jonathan Zizzo

There is no reliable data for how often affiliates of drug cartels get prosecuted for crimes in America, but Burgess says it’s not uncommon. Usually, however, it’s drug dealers who are caught. “That’s normal all across the U.S.,” he says. Over the last decade, there have been a handful of cartel higher-ups arrested in Dallas suburbs, mostly in DEA operations. But when Burgess started researching cartel cases to see what kinds of charges he should bring, he couldn’t find anything like this. “This was different, not only because it’s a murder,” he says, “but also because of the time and effort these guys put in. If law enforcement were trying to track someone, I don’t know if we could have done it any better. They had unbelievable patience. They had the bankroll.” Burgess pauses. “If it had been the FBI looking for him, we might have been shut down.”

As the investigation expanded and agents learned more about the men involved, the details only became grimmer. For example, at least one of the GPS devices associated with Chuy’s account traveled back to Mexico at some point—where it was found on the car of another dead man. Agents also turned up a strange Microsoft Word document, a list of fifty or so names, in Chuy’s email. At least seven of the people on that list were either  dead or missing. “That’s the moment we realized we were literally dealing with a serial killer,” Burgess says. “It was all the more important that we find these guys.”

Certain aspects of the case remained elusive, though, including details of the actual murder. Agents knew that in addition to the tracker on Guerrero’s Range Rover, there was another one at Southlake Town Square at the time of the shooting. That device arrived at the shopping center five minutes after Guerrero and his wife, but before the Toyota Sequoia. At the moment Guerrero was shot, this tracker was parked about a hundred yards away, close enough to see everything. Phone data showed that Joe was actually in South Texas when Guerrero was killed, but he’d been in touch with Chuy on and off that day. Investigators determined that Chuy was at Town Square when the murder happened, but they could see he was sending a series of text messages at the time of the shooting—meaning he was likely with the second GPS tracker and couldn’t have pulled the trigger. That also meant that even if Gerardo had been in the Toyota Sequoia, there had to have been at least one other person involved.

Who would go to such great pains and expense—financing a two-year international manhunt—to ensure Guerrero’s assassination?

Investigators also wondered: who would go to such great pains and expense—financing a two-year international manhunt—to ensure Guerrero’s assassination? Agents had come to believe that the man responsible was a plaza boss (a cartel leader placed in charge of a specific region) in the Beltrán Leyva Organization, a rival of the Gulf Cartel. His name was Rodolfo Villarreal Hernández, but he was better known on the streets as El Gato. His motivations, though, were a mystery, as was the potential involvement of other, more powerful organizations such as the Gulf Cartel or Los Zetas.

These questions weighed heavily on Burgess. For years, his morning routine has included a quiet moment of prayer. It’s a way to center himself for the rest of the day. While he’s immersed in pressure-filled cases, it brings him calm. There have been moments in his career, though, when the stress has become overwhelming, and he suffers from what he euphemistically calls “stomach discomfort” or “intestinal distress.” And this case, he had come to understand, was going to be the most stressful case of his career. As the investigation progressed, it always lingered somewhere in his mind, no matter what he was doing. During meals. While he watched TV. In the moments he was supposed to be spending time with his wife and two teenage children.

In fact, Burgess was concerned for his family’s safety. A few months after the murder, U.S. marshals had visited his house for what’s known as a “site survey,” an assessment of how vulnerable a home might be to attack. As a result, he installed a heavily reinforced, windowless front door with a strike plate to prevent anyone from kicking it in. He also bought a handgun, and he started checking under his Nissan Altima every morning before driving to work. “I was probably a little paranoid,” he says. “But we knew these people had no boundaries, either geographically or morally.”

Investigators had gathered sufficient evidence to arrest all three suspects. They knew they could bring in Joe, who was still down in McAllen, at any time. But Chuy had done more than anyone to track down Guerrero, and he was in Mexico, where arresting someone associated with a cartel is much trickier and extradition is rare. Agents knew that if they nabbed Joe, they’d likely never see Chuy or Gerardo again. So they waited.

Burgess kept a “go bag” packed and ready so he could jump on a plane as soon as arrests were made, and one Sunday in August 2014, he was sitting next to his wife in a church pew, listening to the sermon, when his phone buzzed. Gerardo had crossed the border into the U.S.—alone. Reluctantly, American authorities had held off. When his wife saw the look on Burgess’s face, she assumed someone had died. “This was a man we knew was involved with a murder in the United States entering the country and not getting arrested,” Burgess says. “I thought I was going to throw up.”

But their patience paid off. A few weeks later, on a Friday morning in September—472 days after the Southlake shooting—agents got word that Gerardo was back at the border, and this time his father had accompanied him. Chuy and Gerardo were arrested without incident and taken to the FBI building in McAllen. A few hours later, agents brought Joe in as well.

Burgess and his team grabbed their go bags and boarded a DEA plane to the border. Burgess calls it “the only real James Bond moment I’ve ever had in my career.” During the flight, agents plotted out who would interrogate which suspect and what questions they would ask. Burgess remembers spending a lot of time in the lavatory.

Upon landing, they drove directly from the McAllen airport to the FBI building, fifteen minutes away. There, Elsey led the initial interrogation of Chuy. He’d been anticipating this moment for months. He sat directly in front of Chuy, and a junior agent translated as Elsey methodically laid out the evidence they’d collected. Elsey said he knew that Chuy, his son Gerardo, and his cousin Joe were stalking Guerrero in North Texas in the fall of 2012. He said he knew they’d traveled to Florida, where Guerrero’s brother lives, and looked for him there too. He said he knew they were in Grapevine in early 2013 and that they’d located Guerrero that spring. Then he calmly explained that he knew Chuy had been at Southlake Town Square when Guerrero was killed.

Chuy was coy with the FBI agent. He claimed that he and his son were only crossing the border to buy baby clothes for Gerardo’s newborn. This, despite the fact that when agents arrested Chuy, they found a GPS tracker and a small black notebook with a handwritten list of names. Several of the names, including Guerrero’s, had been crossed out. “It looked like a grocery list,” Burgess says.

The questioning went on for roughly eight hours. During the interrogations, Burgess sat in a nearby room watching Chuy on a video feed, fielding regular updates about Gerardo and Joe, and apprising his supervisors in North Texas. Later that evening, while sitting in his hotel room at the Renaissance Casa de Palmas, he began mulling over the details he’d learned. Still unsure of precisely which organizations they might be disrupting—or what the potential blowback might be—he got up and moved the dresser in front of the door.

Agents pressed Chuy, along with the other two men, over the weekend, and though Chuy was incrementally more forthcoming, he ultimately pleaded not guilty to murder. But before he ceased speaking to agents, he confided that there was no place in the world where El Gato’s men couldn’t hunt him down, including American prisons. “I’m a dead man,” he said.

He also expressed surprise that the hit on Guerrero had taken place in Southlake. He said he’d told El Gato that “this wasn’t the kind of place to do that.”

Burgess and his co-counsel, Aisha Saleem, were confident they could persuade a jury to convict all three men, but they knew it would be much easier if they could get one of them to flip. “We wanted someone who could tell the jury the whole story, from beginning to end,” Burgess says. Because Gerardo was the youngest, and therefore had the most to gain, they zeroed in on him as the best candidate. Burgess negotiated with Gerardo’s attorney for months, until, one day, while he was in a staff meeting, his phone went off. He pulled up a photo of a beer—a celebratory note from Gerardo’s attorney. Gerardo was ready to make a deal.

In exchange for a lighter sentence, he agreed to cooperate with the U.S. government and to plead guilty to one count of interstate stalking. (His father and uncle both faced stalking charges and one count each of conspiracy to commit murder for hire, which meant the possibility of life in prison.)

Gerardo talked about meeting El Gato for the first time. He described going with his dad to visit a tire shop in Monterrey. He remembered seeing a bloody chainsaw and several men carrying automatic weapons. Gerardo said that El Gato’s obsession with killing Guerrero was based on a personal feud dating back more than a decade, to the time when El Gato’s father, a police officer, was murdered. The plaza boss held Guerrero responsible. The family rivalry was well-known in their hometown. In the end, U.S. officials believe El Gato spent somewhere around $1 million for Guerrero’s murder.

Gerardo said that, in one point in the search for Guerrero, he had tried to quit, but El Gato sent men to kill him. In December 2012, the week after Christmas and shortly after they’d returned from South Florida, Gerardo was riding home on his motorcycle when a group of men in a truck passed by, shot in his direction, knocked him off his bike, and then ran him over. After recovering in the hospital, Gerardo resumed the hunt.

As part of his plea, Gerardo also agreed to explain the one other part of the murder plot that still befuddled agents: how the actual assassination was orchestrated. Shortly after Chuy had photographed Guerrero for the first time, El Gato dispatched two men to meet with him and Gerardo in Grapevine. He said he and his father had referred to the men mostly by their nicknames: Captain, who had apparently achieved that rank in the Mexican army, and Clorox, who had a reputation for using bleach to clean up after his jobs for El Gato. Gerardo described how, on the afternoon of May 22, 2013, he and his father trailed Guerrero’s wife, Julia, as she drove the Range Rover to Walmart. In the parking lot, they swapped out its tracker for a different device without any identifying stickers. Then they followed her back to the house in Southlake. At 5:45 p.m., the Range Rover left for Town Square, and Chuy and Gerardo arrived at the shopping area five minutes later. They staked out a spot with a view of the SUV, across from a pond.

Gerardo said his father had seemed unusually nervous for a few days. Now, peering through binoculars and snapping photos, Chuy grew even more anxious. “His mood was kind of different,” Gerardo recalled. “It was like he got something on his mind, like—he wasn’t the same. He was sweating.”

Chuy was in continual contact with El Gato that day, according to phone records. While they were parked at Town Square, El Gato told him he wanted them there to keep an eye on Guerrero in person. He claimed the tracker wasn’t working, but Chuy could see that it was operating normally; he sent screenshots to El Gato to prove as much. At one point, Chuy became paranoid and turned off his own tracker, making them invisible to El Gato. He told his son to turn his phone off and then said he was worried that the two of them sitting in the car might arouse suspicion. He suggested to Gerardo that he fetch some coffees at the Corner Bakery, not far from where they had parked. As Gerardo made his way over, he noticed Captain and Clorox were driving nearby in a white Toyota Sequoia.

Gerardo had just paid for the coffees when other customers began running toward the door, gaping at some sort of commotion outside. When he got back to the car, Chuy told him it was done. Captain and Clorox had finished the job. Gerardo looked across the pond and could see Julia weeping. “I just see the victim’s wife,” he said. “She was like—she got, like, in shock, panic, was screaming, taking her hands to her head, to her face. And, actually, I see one guy taking photos with his cellphone.”

Gerardo said he and his father were worried. This was not the normal arrangement. They’d tracked a lot of people who wound up dead, but they’d never been present for the murder.

Early the next morning, they drove south to McAllen. Chuy wasted no time crossing the border, but Gerardo stayed in a motel on the American side to complete the paperwork for a used Ford Bronco they had bought in Texas and intended to sell in Nuevo León. Before Gerardo crossed, his father called him and told him to buy a few cases of Michelob. El Gato wanted to throw a party in their honor.

Three men from Nuevo León were detained in a nearby parking lot after officers found photos of the court building in their possession. Burgess called his wife and told her to take the kids and leave the house.

The trial began in April 2016, nearly three years after Guerrero’s murder. Homeland Security agents, many of them with bomb-sniffing dogs, lined the block outside the federal courthouse in downtown Fort Worth. Inside, armed U.S. marshals positioned themselves around the perimeter of the courtroom. The hallways were packed with FBI and DEA agents, some of them slotted to testify, others just interested in watching the drama unfold.

Burgess exuded confidence in the courtroom. The anxiety he experienced in the run-up to trial dissipated as soon as proceedings began. Whenever the opposition presented its case, he coiled so tightly on the edge of his seat—primed to leap up and object—that his hamstrings were sore by the final recess each day.

He began his opening statement by comparing Chuy and Joe to big-game-hunting guides. “In the world of big-game hunting, hunters need a guide,” he said. “They have no way to find their prey without a guide that’s willing to take them and show them where the animal is.”

Burgess knew that one of his biggest challenges was likely to be the jury’s disdain for Guerrero. He told jury members that Juan Guerrero Chapa was “an attorney for a high-level member of a drug cartel.” The defense, he told them, “may suggest he was involved in some sort of improper activity” but stressed that “no one deserves to be murdered.”

The government called several witnesses who told stories about seeing or hearing the shooting, but none were as effective as Julia. She recalled the heightened fear her family had endured for years. And, her voice cracking, she recounted the day her husband was murdered. She talked about what it was like to watch him die.

Yet the most dramatic moment of the three-week trial came later, when Gerardo entered the courtroom in shackles, wearing a baggy orange jumpsuit. He hadn’t seen his father since the day they were detained in McAllen, and as he trudged to the witness stand, both men began to audibly whimper. In broken English, Gerardo recounted the long search for Guerrero, the day of the murder, and the rewards that awaited him and his father when they returned to Mexico: El Gato gave them a BMW and a hunting trip. He told the story of trying to quit the hunt for Guerrero and of the ensuing attack by El Gato’s men. He also said he saw Captain and Clorox sometime later, working as El Gato’s bodyguards at a popular wine store in San Pedro called Vinoteca.

Each morning, Burgess and the prosecuting attorneys arrived at the courthouse surrounded by armed agents. And though it wasn’t made public at the time, there was a scare at one point in the trial. Three men from Nuevo León were detained in a nearby parking lot after officers found photos of the court building in their possession. Burgess called his wife and told her to take the kids and leave the house. As it turned out, the men were in town for a construction job and had taken a picture of an attractive woman they’d spotted nearby—with no regard for the building in the background.

After the U.S. government rested, Chuy took the stand in his own defense. Speaking through a court translator (with whom he occasionally bickered), he didn’t dispute any of the facts. Instead, he explained the concept of plomo o plata. Literally translated as “lead or silver,” it’s a tactic employed by all manner of criminal organizations. It implies a choice, though the options are stark: accept a bribe or be killed. It’s a particularly effective tactic in regions susceptible to the dominance of cartels, areas where economic opportunities are negligible and the police or military, which might otherwise provide protection, is compromised. “Silver being money as an incentive for people to do what they want them to do,” Chuy’s attorney, Wes Ball, told the jury. “Lead being the lead of a bullet that they use in threats to harass and in coercion to get people to do what they want them to do.” Chuy said he and his family weren’t criminals; they were victims of a ruthless plaza boss. Burgess, however, reminded the jury that Chuy could have gone to American authorities at any time, particularly when the assassination was imminent.

Joe, unlike his cousin and nephew, declined to testify. His attorneys portrayed him as a tragic character and argued that he had fallen victim to ignorance—that he was merely doing favors for his cousin, that he didn’t know the purpose of their activities. His participation was limited mostly to public records searches, completing financial paperwork, and chatting with real estate agents. Burgess later described the retired telecom technician’s role as “mission control.”

After final arguments, the jury didn’t deliberate for long before finding both Jesús “Chuy” Ledezma Cepeda and his cousin José “Joe” Cepeda Cortés guilty on all counts. Gerardo was sentenced to twenty years in federal prison; with good behavior, he could be out in fifteen. His father and his uncle—both now in their sixties—were sentenced to life.

During the years that Burgess and Elsey were piecing together what happened that day in Southlake, they would often tease each other about which one of them would be the first out—about who would ultimately write the book about the investigation. When they caught up a few weeks after the trial, Elsey, still elated by the conviction, asked Burgess if he was “ready to do this all over again,” to take on the next big case. Burgess paused. He’d lost ten pounds during the trial, and after all the worrying about his family, all the stress he’d endured—no, he said, he wasn’t. “Mike was shocked,” Burgess says. “He couldn’t believe I was willing to walk away from this. And I felt like I was letting him down. But I was done.”

About a year after the trial, Burgess was appointed as a district judge by Governor Greg Abbott, which freed him up to speak publicly about the case. More than two years have passed since the trial, but Burgess is still asked to speak about the Southlake case. He was recently invited by members of the town’s business community to give a presentation in a building a few hundred feet from where Guerrero was shot—not far from Trader Joe’s and a vegan cinnamon bun shop.

The audience was transfixed as Burgess presented what was essentially an adapted version of his opening statement at the trial. The crowd, roughly forty of the most influential people in town, gasped and laughed and shook their heads as Burgess described the cartel attorney who had been living among them, along with the various nicknamed characters who’d tracked him down and murdered him on a warm Wednesday evening in Town Square.

There has actually been another murder in Town Square in the years since Guerrero was gunned down. In 2016 a woman was shot in the face by her estranged husband as she sat in her Jeep at a red light. But that case didn’t garner the same level of attention in town. It’s not the story people talk about in the stands at football games. It’s not the tale newcomers to Southlake hear when they move in and meet the neighbors.

Near the end of his 25-minute talk, Burgess told the crowd that many of the people responsible for Guerrero’s murder have yet to be arrested. There are four sealed indictments in the case, and it’s not clear how much is known about the hit men dubbed Captain and Clorox. El Gato remains at large too. (In May 2018, almost exactly five years after the murder, El Gato’s brother Ramón Villarreal Hernández was arrested by Mexican authorities. He’s still awaiting extradition hearings.) Both Joe and Chuy unsuccessfully appealed their convictions to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, in New Orleans. Joe’s son Joey, a vocal supporter of President Trump, created a YouTube channel arguing for his father’s innocence. In the videos, he singles out Burgess, denouncing him as corrupt, and he appeals to the president to help release Joe from prison.

When Burgess opened up the room to questions, hands shot up at nearly every table. One man asked if Burgess ever wondered what Guerrero thought about as he was slumped in his Range Rover, dying. Burgess said he suspected the cartel attorney might have been scrolling back through the decisions he’d made in life: “all of the things that led up to that moment.”

There were also questions about the investigation, about how he prepared for trial, about whether the story will ever get turned into a movie or TV show. Then a man in the back of the room raised his hand and stood up. He wanted to know how Guerrero ended up in Southlake.

“Of all the places,” the man said, “why here?”

Burgess said he didn’t know for sure. He wasn’t part of the operation that brought Guerrero to the U.S. He reminded them, though, that the attorney had in-laws nearby. Perhaps he wanted to stay close to his family. “If it were me and I had all these bad guys looking for me,” Burgess said. “I would have gone as far away as I could, all the way to Minnesota, or Canada, maybe.”

Then a boisterous man in a blue suit offered a theory that elicited nods of agreement around the room.

“It was probably the schools.”

Michael J. Mooney lives in Dallas. He’s the author of The Life and Legend of Chris Kyle.

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Tags: Crime, Longreads, Juan Guerrero Chapa, los zetas, Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, southlake

Comments

  • andrew wheeler

    This is the best writing I’ve read in years. Amazing. Riveting and beautifully done.

  • M. Philip Oliver

    Agree totally with Andrew Wheeler. Coming from La Frontera since 1946: I’ve almost seen it all. Albeit, in my small opinion “The Wall” should ONLY be Electronic: and IF done right: that would be enough. Wouldn’t have Posted the pic of Burgess: my God bless him.

  • The reason they chose an upscale neighborhood to execute the hit is because it shows local businessmen and judges that they are not immune to the cartels. Build the wall.

    • Kat Conn

      These men had valid visas. They would have taken a plane if they had not driven over. A wall would not have helped.

  • Kat Conn

    Great, great article. Totally riveting. Terrific closer.

  • Scott Miller

    Wow….beautiful piece….awesome close!

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