Extradited Mexican drug kingpin sentenced to 25 years during closed hearing in Houston court

By Juan A. Lozano, AP
Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Drug kingpin sentenced during closed Texas hearing

HOUSTON — A drug kingpin who once headed one of Mexico’s most notoriously violent cartels was sentenced to 25 years in prison Wednesday and ordered to forfeit $50 million, prosecutors announced after a closed hearing in Houston.

Osiel Cardenas-Guillen had previously pleaded guilty to five counts, including drug trafficking. In exchange, prosecutors dropped 12 other counts that could have netted him a possible life sentence if convicted.

Investigators believe at its height, Cardenas-Guillen’s cartel had cells in Houston, Chicago, Atlanta and elsewhere and moved four to six tons of cocaine per month into the United States.

Cardenas-Guillen’s case has been shrouded in secrecy since he was extradited to the United States in 2007. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys have declined to discuss the case and most of the court documents have been sealed. A trial set for last September was canceled without explanation just weeks before its scheduled start.

U.S. District Judge Hilda Tagle denied a request by the media Wednesday to open Cardenas-Guillen’s sentencing to the public, saying in an order issued after the hearing that doing so could have endangered the kingpin — who court documents say had earned the nickname “the friend-killer” for his willingness to murder people within his own cartel.

The sentencing was not announced ahead of time in federal court records.

“The successful prosecution of Cardenas-Guillen underscores the joint resolve of the United States and Mexico to pursue and prosecute the leadership of the drug trafficking cartels, dismantle their organizations and end the violence and corruption they have spawned,” U.S. Attorney Jose Angel Moreno said in a statement Wednesday.

Cardenas-Guillen’s attorneys did not immediately return several phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.

Moreno said Cardenas-Guillen, 42, previously pleaded guilty to one drug trafficking count, three counts related to threatening U.S. federal agents and one count of money laundering. In exchange, prosecutors dropped 12 other drug trafficking charges that were part of a 2000 indictment out of Brownsville in South Texas. His case was moved to Houston because of security concerns.

Cardenas-Guillen, from Matamoros, Mexico, located across the border from Brownsville, was one of four drug kingpins and about a dozen lesser cartel soldiers extradited to the United States by Mexican authorities in 2007.

Officials say he was the leader of the extensive Matamoros-based Gulf cartel, which prosecutors said operated an Atlanta safe house that collected about $41 million in drug money over a 3½-month stretch in 2001. The money eventually made it back to Mexico.

Cardenas-Guillen was the first cartel leader to employ a paramilitary group, former Mexican special forces soldiers who called themselves the Zetas, to help him run his operations. The Zetas tortured, beat and beheaded rivals and police.

Two of the counts Cardenas-Guillen was sentenced for relate to a 1999 incident in which he and his men surrounded and threatened DEA and FBI agents who were in Matamoros to talk to an informant.

Cardenas-Guillen was arrested by Mexican authorities in 2003 but continued to run his cartel from his relatively luxurious cell in the top-security La Palma prison west of Mexico City until he was extradited.

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