Gulf Cartel capo pleads guilty to immigration, gun charges
January 9th 2012 · 1 Comment
A top Gulf Cartel plaza boss pleaded guilty to immigration and weapons charges Monday, the day before jury selection was set to begin in his case.Jose Luis Zuniga Hernandez, 43, entered the guilty plea Monday before U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen in Brownsville.
Zuniga, known as “El Wicho,” was found by U.S. Border Patrol agents in October near Santa Maria alongside four other men.
Beyond four bags of cocaine and $20,000 in cash, agents recovered a gold-plated Colt Super .38-caliber pistol studded with diamonds and rubies that spelled out his name, federal court records state.
Zuniga was believed to be the plaza boss in Matamoros, though court documents do not list a specific role he served within the Gulf Cartel.
He spent hours talking with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents following his arrest, offering the jewel-encrusted pistol as a gift, claiming his interrogator “was a commander of many men just like he was,” federal court records state.
“He stated that he was very pleased to give the weapon to a strong commander,” prosecutors wrote in court records filed last month.
Agents refused to accept Zuniga’s gift. He then “told agents not to worry and smiled.”
“He told agents he had a jeweler in Reynosa, Mexico that handles the customization of his weapons,” court records state.
“Wicho” claimed he had four other guns clad with at least as many diamonds as the one seized by federal authorities. He offered the gift to agents minutes before his federal court hearing in Brownsville.
Agents detained Zuniga and four other men along McManus Road and Military Highway near Santa Maria, just east of the Hidalgo-Cameron County line. Four of the men did not have immigration documents to legally be in the country, agents said.
At a court hearing last month, Zuniga’s lawyer attempted to have his client’s statements removed from the case, claiming ICE agents coerced him into talking without any legal counsel present.
“Zuniga was told that if he did not cooperate and confess, he would be immediately deported to Mexico to face a certain death,” Brownsville-based lawyer Guillermo Vega Jr. wrote.
Judge Hanen declined the lawyer’s request. Federal prosecutors maintain Zuniga received his Miranda rights and volunteered the information to investigators.
Zuniga “freely admitted” to his immigration status as a Mexican national without documents to reside in the United States, a criminal complaint states.
His arrest last fall came amid fierce infighting within the Gulf Cartel, after Samuel “Metro 3” Flores Borrego, the plaza boss in Reynosa, was found shot to death.
“What we’re seeing on a daily basis is … a lot of changes in the Gulf Cartel,” one U.S. law enforcement official said after Zuniga’s arrest. “We just don’t know, but what I think everybody agrees on is there’s some infighting that’s going on and the landscape is changing a bit.”
That landscape was a new shift after the Gulf Cartel split from its former paramilitary allies, Los Zetas, in early 2010. Since then, widespread gun battles across northern Mexico have claimed an unknown number of lives — beyond the hundreds of bodies found in mass graves near San Fernando, many of whom are believed to be kidnap victims and bus passengers. More than 46,000 people have been killed in drug violence since Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched a military-led crackdown of traffickers five years ago, according to Reuters.
Zuniga’s arrest came amid a cluster of higher-profile takedowns by U.S. authorities against the Gulf Cartel’s leadership.
Perhaps the most prominent arrest was Rafael Cardenas Vela, known as “El Junior,” who was detained by ICE near Port Isabel in October. Cardenas Vela is the nephew of Osiel Cardenas Guillen, the former head of the Gulf Cartel, who is serving a 25-year federal prison sentence on drug charges.
Zuniga was deported from the U.S. in 1997 after a conviction on federal drug charges in 1990. He remains in federal custody pending a sentencing hearing set for April.
Zuniga faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison for illegal re-entry and up to 10 years for being an illegal alien in possession of a firearm. Each charge carries a maximum $250,000 fine.
A version of this column originally appeared in www.themonitor.com.
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By Jared Taylor