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Press Release

Second Former Gulf Cartel Plaza Boss Pleads Guilty To Federal Drug Charges

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Southern District of Texas

BROWNSVILLE, Texas – Jose Luis Zuniga-Hernandez, 46, aka Wicho or XW or Commandante Wicho, has entered a plea of guilty to 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. As part of his plea, he has also agreed to a $5 million forfeiture. His brother, Armando Arizmendi Hernandez, 37, aka Commandante Mando or XW2, entered the same plea and agreed forfeiture on Tuesday, March 25, 2014.

Zuniga-Hernandez served as plaza boss of the El Control, Tamaulipas, Plaza, and during that time, Arizmendi Hernandez was second in command.  Arizmendi-Hernandez became the plaza boss 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. 

Zuniga-Hernandez received marijuana shipments from the States of Durango and Michoacán, Mexico, purchased at $60 per kilogram in Mexico and sold at $130 per kilogram in the U.S. Zuniga-Hernandez indicated the CDG smuggled more than one ton of cocaine through the Matamoros/El Control plaza areas and 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. An estaca is 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 have 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.

They face a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years and up to life in federal prison. Both will be sentenced before U.S. District Court Judge Hilda G. Tagle on June 30, 2014.

The case was investigated by Homeland Security Investigations, Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Brownsville Police Department. Assistant United States Attorneys Angel Castro and Jody Young are prosecuting.

Updated April 30, 2015