Former Mexico drug kingpin's nephew pleads guilty in Texas

BROWNSVILLE, Texas Mon Mar 12, 2012 3:50pm EDT

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BROWNSVILLE, Texas (Reuters) - The nephew of a powerful former Mexican drug cartel chief admitted on Monday to a drug trafficking conspiracy that stretched across the United States.

Rafael Cardenas Vela, 38, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and more than a half ton of marijuana at a hearing before U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen in Brownsville, Texas.

Cardenas Vela is the nephew of Osiel Cardenas, the former leader of the brutal Gulf cartel, who was extradited to the United States in 2007 and is currently serving a 25-year sentence.

Clad in a wrinkled blue collared shirt, khaki pants and white tennis shoes, Cardenas Vela did not dispute federal prosecutors' portrayal of his rise to power in the Gulf cartel since 2000.

An indictment states Cardenas Vela first assumed control of cartel operations in San Fernando, a key hub for drug trafficking in Tamaulipas state in northeast Mexico. He had acted as the cartel's chief in its hometown of Matamoros, Mexico, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jody Young said in court Monday that Cardenas Vela oversaw the trafficking of bulk amounts of cocaine and marijuana to cities along the Texas border, Houston and several other cells across the United States.

Prosecutors said Cardenas Vela took control of Matamoros, a gritty border city, amid a power struggle within the cartel's ranks after the November 2010 slaying of another uncle, Antonio Cardenas Guillen, better known as "Tony the Storm."

U.S. and Mexican authorities are cooperating in efforts to stem drug trafficking and cross-border crime from Mexico, where about 50,000 people have been killed since President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006 and deployed the military to battle the cartels.

In a statement issued following Monday's hearing, U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson said Cardenas Vela's conviction demonstrates federal authorities' efforts to "weaken the cartels' influence on drug trafficking and other criminal activity within our district and along the Southwest border."

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents detained Cardenas Vela during an undercover operation outside a lavish ranch home where he was staying north of Brownsville in October, 2011.

Authorities arrested him and two others during a traffic stop and Cardenas Vela later admitted to his identity after presenting a fake Mexican passport, Young said.

Cardenas Vela had been hiding in South Texas since May 2011, hoping to avoid a confrontation with the Gulf cartel's former paramilitary enforcers, the Zetas. The two factions split in early 2010 and widespread battles to gain control of smuggling routes have spread across northeast Mexico.

The indictment said Cardenas Vela used drug trafficking proceeds to bribe Mexican police officers and purchase bulletproof vehicles, firearms, grenades and homemade cannons in the Gulf cartel's fight against the Zetas.

Prosecutors recommended Cardenas Vela receive close to the minimum sentence in exchange for his guilty plea. He faces between 10 years and life in prison and up to $10 million in fines at a sentencing hearing set for June.

(Editing by Greg McCune)

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