Former Gulf Cartel Plaza Bosses Receive Long Prison Sentences
BROWNSVILLE, Texas – Jose Luis Zuniga-Hernandez, 47, aka Wicho or XW or Commandante Wicho, has been ordered to federal prison along with his brother Armando Arizmendi Hernandez, 37, aka Commandante Mando or XW2 for conspiracy to import more than five kilograms of cocaine and more than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana between January 2002 and July 2013, announced United States Attorney Kenneth Magidson along with Janice Ayala, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in San Antonio. Both defendants previously pleaded guilty and, as part of their pleas, also agreed to a $5 million forfeiture.
Today, Senior U.S. District Judge Hilda G. Tagle, sentenced Zuniga-Hernandez to 50 years in federal prison, while Arizmendi Hernandez will serve a 35-year-term.
During a sentencing hearing that was held on Feb. 4, 2015, the court heard evidence regarding sentencing enhancements or increases in the calculated sentencing guideline ranges. During the hearing, the government presented evidence that allowed the court to find that the sentences for both should be enhanced because they utilized automatic weapons, grenades, homemade cannons and body armor to provided security during the purchase, transportation and distribution of narcotics. The evidence also proved that both commanded, directed and engaged in violent confrontations with other criminal syndicates to maintain control of the plazas in Mexico. Both received enhancements for importation of methamphetamine into the United States, for bribing law enforcement to facilitate the crimes committed, for maintaining premises for the purpose of manufacturing or distributing a controlled substance. Both also received enhancements because they committed the offense as part of a pattern of criminal conduct or livelihood. Finally, the court also found that both should receive an enhancement because the evidence showed they were leader/organizers of a criminal activity that involved five or more participants and was otherwise extensive.
“The arrest and prosecution of these individuals dealt a significant blow to the Gulf Cartel," said Ayala. "Today’s sentencing marks the culmination of a sustained and dedicated effort by HSI Brownville and Attache Mexico special agents, RGV Sector Border Patrol agents, other federal and state and local partners and the U.S. Attorney's Office towards the dismantlement of transnational criminal organizations impacting public safety on both sides of our border with Mexico."
Zuniga-Hernandez served as plaza boss of the El Control, Tamaulipas, Plaza, for a large period of time between 2008 through 2011 and, during that time, Arizmendi-Hernandez was second in command. Arizmendi-Hernandez became the plaza boss of El Control on Nov. 6, 2010, when Zuniga-Hernandez assumed control of the Matamoros Plaza upon the death of Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas-Guillen. On March 28, 2011, Rafael Cardenas-Vela came to Matamoros to take over the plaza management duties and Zuniga-Hernandez returned to the El Control Plaza. At that time, Arizmendi-Hernandez resumed his duties as second in command of the Plaza.
Cartel Del Golfo Transnational Criminal Organization (CDG) plaza bosses are appointed to specific regions to help coordinate the importation and distribution of multi-ton shipments of cocaine, marijuana and other illicit narcotics within Mexico and into the United States. They are the lead representatives for the CDG in a particular region or town, responsible for maintaining control of the region and ensuring the safe passage of narcotics. The plaza boss also extracts a "piso," or payment, from others who want to transport narcotics for importation into the United States or operate businesses in that region.
The evidence presented at sentencing indicated that Zuniga-Hernandez and the CDG smuggled more than one ton of cocaine through the Matamoros/El Control plaza areas and more that 3000 kilograms of marijuana into the United States per month. Planes and clandestine air strips were used to fly the cocaine into Mexico for later importation and distribution within the United States.
Under his command were approximately 120 lookouts and 60 estacas (a vehicle occupied by three or four armed individuals). Thus, 60 estacas would be anywhere from 180 to 240 armed individuals patrolling the plaza.
On Oct. 27, 2011, Zuniga-Hernandez and Arizmendi Hernandez fled into the United States with Juan Rincon-Rincon and Luis Ivan Nino-Duenes after a gun battle in Mexico involving a power struggle between the plazas of the CDG. All were found and arrested by the U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) hiding near the Rio Grande River. Upon their arrest, agents found a gold, diamond and ruby encrusted gun, more than $39,000 and several cell phones. Evidence on those phones showed discussions with "Apa" about the gun battle and what to do in response. "Apa" was identified as Jorge Eduardo Costilla-Sanchez, the head of the CDG. Also found were videos of Arizmendi Hernandez, Zuniga-Hernandez and other members of the CDG in preparation for and after the Oct. 27, 2011, gun battle.
Zuniga-Hernandez and Arizmendi Hernandez had stipulated that the total relevant conduct during their leadership was well in excess of 150 kilograms of cocaine and 1,000 kilograms of marijuana. Both have agreed they obtained at least $5 million in drug proceeds as a result of the conspiracy.
Both men will remain in custody pending transfer to a U.S. Bureau of Prisons facility to be determined in the near future.
The case was result of an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) investigation conducted by HSI, Drug Enforcement Administration and the Cameron County Sheriff’s Office. Assistant United States Attorneys Angel Castro and Jody Young are prosecuting.