Federal authorities announced indictments Monday against the reputed leaders of Mexico's Gulf cartel and its paramilitary force, the Zetas, accusing them of trafficking tons of cocaine and marijuana from South America through the Texas-Mexico border.
Three of the men are identified as the "triumvirate" that manages the far-flung enterprise, dividing its territories among themselves. Another reputed leader, Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, allegedly controls the Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo, where the cartel is believed to funnel large amounts of drugs through the busy truck crossing into Laredo, Texas.
Fifteen more alleged cartel lieutenants were charged in the pair of indictments filed in New York and Washington, D.C. The Washington indictment was filed in June but not announced until Monday.
Federal authorities said the actions should help deal a blow to one of Mexico's most powerful drug trafficking organizations. "We have learned that the most effective way to disrupt and dismantle criminal organizations is to prosecute their leaders and seize their funding," U.S. Assistant Atty. Gen. Lanny A. Breuer said in a prepared statement.
Treviño and the triumvirate of Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez and Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano also were designated "narcotics kingpins" by the U.S. Treasury Department, which allows the government to freeze their assets.
The moves added significantly to the list of Mexicans wanted by the U.S. Although the Mexican government has extradited more suspects in recent years, it has a mixed record in capturing alleged drug lords. Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, believed to lead the Sinaloa drug cartel, remains a fugitive 16 years after he was first indicted and eight years after he escaped from prison.
The Mexican government has offered rewards of up to $2.4 million for tips leading to the capture of the Gulf suspects. The U.S. is offering $50 million in reward money.
With its stronghold in the Mexican border states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon, the Gulf cartel has long dominated drug trafficking through eastern Mexico, bringing cocaine shipments through ports on the Gulf of Mexico. In the 1990s, the cartel enlisted the Zetas, a group of military defectors, as its enforcement arm.
U.S. authorities now refer to the Gulf cartel and Zetas as the "Company."
The partnership smuggles the drugs into Mexico from Colombia and Venezuela, using Panama and Guatemala as transshipment points, according to the indictments. Among the area identified as key trafficking corridors for the organization are the states of Tamaulipas, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Veracruz.
Hundreds of miles of Mexican territory along the border is controlled by the Company, which has carried out a violent campaign against Mexican law enforcement officers and rival drug traffickers, the indictment alleges.
Wiretap evidence apparently captures the suspects talking about drug shipments, the pricing of cocaine and marijuana, bribe amounts and threat against rivals, according to federal authorities. Records of shipments, bribes and debts owed were allegedly kept on laptop computers and flash drives, the indictments allege. Treviño claimed to control the ministerial police in the state of Veracruz and once discussed a $2-million bribe to Mexican government officials, according to U.S. authorities.
The indictments represent the latest actions by the U.S. and Mexican government against the Gulf cartel. The one-time leader of the organization, Osiel Cardenas Guillen, was captured in 2003. He was extradited to the U.S. in 2007.