BROWNSVILLE, Texas (AP) — An alleged Mexican drug cartel manager who authorities say stayed involved in cartel business right up until his conviction through coded phone conversations from a U.S. jail was sentenced Thursday to seven years in prison on immigration and weapon charges.
Jose Luis Zuniga Hernandez, known as "El Wicho," managed Gulf cartel operations in Matamoros, Mexico, just across the Rio Grande from Brownsville before fleeing to the U.S. to escape enemies, federal authorities said. When arrested near the border in 2011, Zuniga was carrying more than $36,000, cocaine and a gold-plated handgun engraved with his nickname.
Zuniga, 44, pleaded guilty earlier this month to illegal re-entry and being an illegal immigrant possessing a firearm. He was sentenced in Brownsville.
U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen explained that he would not lengthen Zuniga's sentence for his involvement in the cartel, because he wasn't formally charged with those crimes. But the judge noted Zuniga's prior criminal history in the U.S. and the fact that he had a gun, cash and cocaine when arrested, which he said made Zuniga "a serious threat to the well-being of the citizens of Texas."
Zuniga is the latest in a string of Gulf cartel bosses who were arrested on both sides of the border in the past year. Still, the U.S. Border Patrol's Rio Grande Valley sector — which guards the section of border fronting the Gulf cartel's territory — has seized nearly 250,000 pounds of marijuana so far this fiscal year.
In brief comments in Spanish, Zuniga asked for forgiveness from his family, Hanen and people he hurt.
Zuniga denied in court that he was the man behind "El Wicho" and other nicknames, though authorities say he proudly explained their origins in the days following his arrest.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent Luis Flores testified Thursday that Zuniga had been involved in drug smuggling since at least 1990, when he was convicted in a drug conspiracy that included more than a ton of marijuana. Zuniga told authorities that he did not start working directly for the Gulf cartel until late 2002 or early 2003.
Authorities say Zuniga soon became the right-hand man for Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, the cartel's boss before he was captured last year in Mexico. U.S. authorities are currently working to extradite him to the U.S.
In 2005, Zuniga was given responsibility for a stretch of the U.S-Mexico border west of Matamoros called El Control, where he worked until being promoted to Matamoros plaza boss in November 2010.
Rafael Cardenas Vela, the nephew of former cartel kingpin Osiel Cardenas Guillen, testified at a trial in September for another cartel member that Zuniga frustrated superiors during his short reign in Matamoros.
Cardenas testified that he replaced Zuniga in that post in March 2011, after Zuniga and others had robbed eight armored cars within a month, bringing a lot of attention to the area. Cardenas gave them 24 hours to get out of town.
A gun battle with rivals drove Zuniga to the U.S. in October 2011. Zuniga had called for reinforcements, but Costilla told him it would be a couple days. Zuniga decided to wait in the safety of the U.S. for the reinforcements then return to Mexico to re-engage his enemies, according to Flores' testimony Thursday.
After his arrest, Zuniga maintained contact with his co-conspirators through phone calls from jail. Flores said Zuniga made 560 phone calls in the five weeks prior to his guilty plea in January, often speaking in code to continue managing cartel business.
Zuniga's plea for forgiveness Thursday stood in stark contrast to his expansive conversations with federal agents that at times bordered on boast.
During a spontaneous conversation with agents at his arraignment in 2011, Zuniga spoke of the .38 Super pistol that was with him when he was arrested. He told agents he had paid a jeweler in Mexico $57,000 to customize the gold-plated and bejeweled handgun with "Wicho" engraved on it.
Zuniga even offered the gun as a gift to an ICE supervisor, because he said he also commanded many men, Flores testified.
On Thursday, Zuniga's attorney argued that his client was not the owner of the gun or the leather bag it was inside. Also in that bag were baggies of cocaine, more than $36,000 in cash, some nasal spray and packets of an erectile dysfunction medicine. Hanen overruled those objections.