By Brendan McKenna, Alfredo Corchado and Jason Trahan
The Dallas Morning News
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Federal drug agents swept through Dallas and three other Texas cities, arresting more than 30 people believed to be affiliated with the narcotics distribution network of the Gulf Cartel, one of Mexico's most powerful drug smuggling organizations.
Agents simultaneously executed 19 search warrants in Dallas, McAllen, Laredo and San Antonio — starting about 6 a.m. Thursday — as part of a 2 ½-year Drug Enforcement Administration investigation known as Operation Puma. The operation has captured more than 2,450 kilograms of cocaine, 33 metric tons of marijuana and $5.5 million, according to the agency.
The raids netted Sergio Maldonado, 33, of McKinney, believed to be the cartel's "cell leader" for North Texas, and several other longtime players in the Dallas drug scene, according to law enforcement officials.
Mr. Maldonado, arrested without incident in Laredo, is one of 20 people from the Dallas area indicted on multiple counts of conspiracy, drug trafficking and money laundering.
DEA agents would not say much about the origins of the operation because the indictments have only been partially unsealed in federal court. But James Capra, special agent in charge of the Dallas Field Division of the DEA, said in a prepared statement that it started in Dallas.
"As the investigation progressed, it became evident that the tentacles of this drug trafficking enterprise spanned both national and international territories," Mr. Capra said. "As criminal members were identified, the scope and magnitude of this organization's destructive powers became apparent."
A local law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity described Thursday's raids as "extremely significant," saying Dallas police narcotics officers have been involved "from the beginning."
Several men named in the indictments have been key drug figures in the Dallas area for years, including Sofio Nieto Jr. and Norberto Gonzales, according to another law enforcement source.
Some of the defendants were thought to be rivals at one point, the official said. Now that they are alleged to be in the same conspiracy, it's not necessarily a sign that they're all now part of one Mexican cartel.
At various times, the defendants in the indictments were working for or getting supplied by the Gulf or Juarez cartels, or other suppliers from Mexico, the official said.
"The cartels have tentacles everywhere" through North Texas, the source said. "The cells are not aware of who the other cells are, so if they get popped, they won't turn anyone else in. It's like terrorist cells. If one gets knocked down, the organization as a whole can remain intact."
Although it's not alleged in the indictments, the source said some of the defendants were involved in trafficking connected to at least two shootings, including one in Old East Dallas in 2006.
Operation Puma is named for Carlos Landin-Martinez, a former Mexican police commander who has been described by U.S. authorities as a second-in-command for the Gulf Cartel operations in Reynosa and enforcer for the Zetas, a gang made up partially of former members of the Mexican army and police forces.
Mr. Landin-Martinez was arrested on an outstanding federal warrant July 14 while shopping for watermelons at a grocery in McAllen.
He is accused of distributing cocaine and working as a gatekeeper who collected a toll from smugglers moving large quantities of drugs and money through the "Reynosa plaza" – a border crossing controlled by the Gulf Cartel, according to federal authorities.
Agencies assisting the DEA in Operation Puma include Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the FBI, as well as police departments in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, McAllen, Laredo, Texarkana, Atlanta and Mexico.
"Today's arrests are the direct result of the unprecedented, cooperative efforts of federal and state law enforcement throughout the state of Texas," said Richard Roper, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas, in a statement.
Zoran Yankovich, who leads the DEA's Houston Division, said Operation Puma also came about because of "unprecedented" cooperation between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement agencies.
"The message to these organizations should be clear," Mr. Yankovich said in a statement. "Use the cross-border area at your own peril."
But just how much Thursday's arrests and seizures will affect the Gulf Cartel and its armed enforcers, the Zetas, isn't clear, said another U.S. law enforcement official speaking on condition of anonymity.
The federal law enforcement official declined to disclose details about Operation Puma but said the operation "underscores the strength of these transnational gangs. They can operate on either side fairly easily and create headaches for both governments."
The official cautioned that the arrests won't deter the Gulf Cartel from ceasing operations until "U.S. drug demand falls dramatically."
"I don't see that happening anytime soon," he said. "If anything, this is a wake-up call for Americans on the threat these groups pose."
Aid package in works
U.S. and Mexican officials are in the midst of negotiating a counternarcotics aid package for Mexico, estimated at about $1.2 billion over three years, that includes advanced crime-fighting technologies and possibly Black Hawk helicopters.
Over four years or so, the Gulf Cartel's presence has mushroomed across Texas, but particularly along Interstate 35, which serves as a lucrative distribution route from the Nuevo Laredo region, U.S. and Mexicans officials have said. Drugs coming from the Reynosa-Matamoros region usually head to Houston, New Orleans and on to Miami.
"North Texas is ideal for the Gulf Cartel because of the many interstates and tiny airports throughout the region," said the U.S. law enforcement official. "It's also a straight shot to the Midwest and points beyond. This is not surprising because not only are these people cold-blooded killers, they're also savvy businessmen and know where the dollars are."
The growth of the Gulf Cartel and the trigger-happy Zetas has led to widespread panic across Mexico, but also throughout Texas, where Mexican cartels have established drug cells as part of Mexico's $25 billion-a-year drug trafficking industry.
Illegal drugs are killing an estimated 20,000 Americans each year, said Adm. James. G. Stavridis, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, who spoke at a border security conference in El Paso this week.
The most feared group is the Zetas, whose membership has grown to nearly 2,000, with the help of Guatemalan army commando unit known as the Kaibiles, according to U.S. and Mexican officials. Together, they have terrorized Mexico with the growing use of beheadings and other savage killings.
"It's just a matter of time before these groups use these tactics on U.S. soil," the U.S. law enforcement official said.
In addition to the Dallas arrests, the North Texas portion of Operation Puma has resulted in the seizure of 277 kilograms of cocaine, 900 pounds of marijuana and nearly $2.5 million in the city. Thursday's raids contributed 2 kilograms of cocaine and $80,000 to that total.
Federal prosecutors also will seek forfeiture of homes in McKinney and Dallas and 13 vehicles seized from the defendants.
In the federal Southern District of Texas, which covers Houston, Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley, Operation Puma resulted in 27 arrests, the seizure of 2,622 kilograms of cocaine, 15,945 kilograms of marijuana and $5.5 million in cash.
According to federal court records the list of those indicted also includes Jose Ivan Contreras, Victor Ruiz Hernandez, Jaime Granillo, Jorge Israel Cruz, Adolpho Garcia Rivera, Luis Enrique Contreras, Sofio "Cinco" Nieto, Jose "Pequeno" Silva, Felipe Rodriguez, Vic Garcia, Patrick Hooper, Abel Saenz, Rafael Mendez Herrera, Richard Rodriguez, Aldo Saenz, Arturo Salazar Valdez, Noe Godines. They are expected to appear for detention hearings in federal court Monday.
Copyright 2007 The Dallas Morning News
DEA raids 4 Texas cities, bust major Mexican drug cartel suspects