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Mexican "Gulf Cartel" Leader Juan Garcia Abrego Convicted on U.S. Drug Charges


November 1996

Juan Garcia Abrego, described as the leader of a powerful drug ring based in Mexico, was convicted on October 16 on drug trafficking charges (Deborah Tedford and Jo Ann Zuniga, "Cocaine kingpin is guilty," Houston Chronicle, October 17, 1996, p. 1A; Sue Anne Pressley, "Accused Leader of Mexico-U.S. Drug Ring Convicted," Washington Post, October 17, 1996, p. A4; "U.S. Jury Convicts Mexican on Drug Charges," New York Times, October 17, 1996, p. A3; Bruce Nichols, "U.S. jury finds Abrego guilty of drug charges," Dallas Morning News, October 17, 1996, p. 1A).

After a four-week trial and twelve hours of deliberation, a jury in U.S. District Court in Houston convicted Garcia Abrego on all 22 counts of money laundering, drug possession and drug trafficking. Prosecutors said Garcia Abrego lead the "Gulf cartel" of drug traffickers, which smuggled more than 15 tons of cocaine and 46,000 pounds of marijuana from Mexico into the United States, and laundered about $10.5 million. Garcia Abrego, 52, faces up to life in prison, and is scheduled to be sentenced on January 31, 1997.

Mike Ramsey, Garcia Abrego's lawyer, called the proceedings a "show trial" during his closing arguments. Ramsey suggested that the U.S. Government was using the high-profile trial in an election year to give the appearance that progress was being made in the war on drugs. He also labeled prosecution witnesses as "star rats" who were "bought and paid for" with reduced sentences.

Another defense attorney, Tony Canales (a former U.S. Attorney), tried to exclude a confession made by Garcia Abrego, but Judge Ewing Werlein Jr. rejected that effort. Canales claimed that Mexican authorities illegally injected his client with Valium® while deporting him to the United States the day after his arrest. Canales said the drug had impaired the judgement of Garcia Abrego, who said he could not recall waiving his rights or confessing to the FBI (Bruce Nichols, "Drug suspect testifies he doesn't recall waiving his rights," Dallas Morning News, September 10, 1996, p. 13A).

Many U.S. and Mexican officials expected the trial to implicate high-ranking Mexican law-enforcement officers. "It would be a significant embarrassment if he was to divulge the names of all the people he was paying off," said Phil Jordan, a retired DEA official. Some witnesses testified to wide-spread corruption in Mexican law enforcement, and implicated officials in the United States. Government witnesses testified that the "Gulf cartel" used U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service buses and National Guard members to transport drugs, and that Border Patrol guards at a highway checkpoint in Sarita, Texas accepted bribes from the cartel ("Cartel Used INS Buses, Trial Told," Washington Post, September 27, 1996, p. A2; "Drug Cartel Insider Says National Guard Helped," Washington Post, October 1, 1996, p. A9; Associated Press, "Claims of aid from U.S. agents add twist to federal drug trial," Dallas Morning News, October 3, 1996, p. 29A).

During an investigation that began in 1986, Garcia Abrego was first indicted in federal court in Dallas in 1990. U.S. officials indicted him again in Houston in 1993, and amended the indictment this year. Garcia Abrego had been on the FBI's 10 most wanted list for 10 months, but managed to evade law enforcement officials until January 14, 1996, when Mexican officials arrested him in Monterrey, Mexico. The prosecution built their case primarily on testimony and taped conversations provided by agent Claude de la O, who infiltrated Garcia Abrego's organization by posing as a corrupt FBI official and accepting a $100,000 bribe ("As U.S. Trial Begins, Mexican Drug Suspect Confronts Accuser," New York Times, September 20, 1996, p. A15).

At a property forfeiture hearing after the criminal trial, the jury determined that the convicted drug dealer should forfeit $350 million to the Unites States Government. The U.S. Government had requested $1.05 billion, a figure that prosecutors said represented Garcia Abrego's share from the sale of illicit drugs.