The top leader of Mexico’s notorious Gulf cartel has been arrested while shopping in south Texas, U.S. officials said Tuesday.
Juan Francisco Saenz-Tamez, 23, of Camargo, in Tamaulipas state, was indicted by a U.S. grand jury in September 2013 on charges of drug trafficking stretching from Texas and Florida to Washington, D.C., and the Eastern Seaboard.
Saenz-Tamez, who officials say rose through the ranks to lead the violent cartel, was captured Oct. 9 by federal agents while shopping in Edinburg, Texas.
He is charged with conspiracy in the shipping of thousands of pounds of cocaine and marijuana across the U.S.-Mexico border and with money-laundering.
U.S. officials hailed the arrest as a sign of cooperation between law enforcement agencies in the two countries.
John M. Bales, U.S. attorney in Beaumont, Texas, called the arrest “further proof that justice is prevailing in Mexico.”
Michele M. Leonhart, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said Saenz-Tamez “oversaw much of the violence and bloodshed that has plagued Mexico.”
“He moved steadily up the cartel ranks, working as a lookout, record keeper, plaza boss and finally its leader.”
Saenz-Tamez made an initial appearance in court Tuesday. He is being held in Beaumont. Prosecutors said they hoped to seize up to $100 million in assets he acquired during his alleged drug enterprises.
If convicted on all charges, he will face a maximum of life in prison.
Jorge Chabat, a security expert at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching in Mexico City, said the Gulf cartel had weakened in recent years.
“In terms of the criminal organizations in Mexico, it’s a cartel that is in decline,” said Chabat, who said he had never heard of Saenz-Tamez. “The truth is that this organization is not as relevant as it used to be.”
The Gulf cartel, which is involved in moving marijuana and cocaine to the U.S. through the border city of Matamoros, has been locked in a brutal battle for control of northeastern Mexico with the Zetas cartel, which began as a Gulf cartel paramilitary wing but later split off.
At time same time, it has seen several of its top leaders arrested in recent years, including Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez in 2012 and Mario Armando Ramirez Treviño in 2013.
Saenz-Tamez is among several suspected cartel leaders to be apprehended in recent months. The Mexican government this month arrested the suspected leader of the Juarez cartel, Vicente Carrillo Fuentes. A few weeks before that, Mexican authorities nabbed Hector Beltran Leyva, suspected head of the Beltran Leyva gang.
Times staff writer Kate Linthicum in Mexico City contributed to this report.
On Twitter: @RickSerranoLAT