BROWNSVILLE, Texas (AP) — A federal jury seated just across the Rio Grande from the Mexican Gulf cartel's historic base of power convicted one of its bosses Friday on charges of conspiring to import and distribute marijuana and cocaine.
Juan Roberto Rincon-Rincon, 41, had risen from the cartel boss' right-hand man to plaza boss, controlling a lucrative stretch of smuggling routes across the Rio Grande from Texas. He is the second of the cartel's plaza bosses to be convicted in Texas this year. He faces 10 years to life in prison for each of the two counts when sentenced Jan. 7.
Rincon-Rincon did not testify, and his lawyers did not call any witnesses in his defense.
"It's an important verdict," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jody Young said. "I think it shows that we're certainly looking at individuals on both sides of the border involved in drug trafficking."
Authorities in the U.S. and Mexico have been making headway against the cartel since its leader, Osiel Cardenas Vela, was extradited to the U.S. in 2007. His brother, Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, also known as "Tony Tormenta," was killed by Mexican marines in 2010. And more recently, another brother, Mario Cardenas, was arrested in Mexico earlier this month.
Also this month, Mexican authorities captured Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, who took over as cartel leader after Cardenas and was Rincon-Rincon's boss.
Rincon-Rincon is one of three Gulf cartel plaza bosses arrested in the U.S. last year. Mexican authorities captured yet another alleged boss this week.
Jurors deliberated for two hours in Rincon-Rincon's case Friday after prosecutors closed their case by highlighting incriminating statements he made shortly after he was captured last October.
"I am a commander of the Gulf cartel," Young told jurors in Spanish at the start of his closing argument, adding that it was the same response Rincon-Rincon eventually gave agents when they asked for his identity.
Rincon-Rincon went on to explain how much of a cut he got from each kilogram of marijuana that crossed the border from his territory and said he had one smuggler working for him who moved 500 kilograms per week into the U.S., according to Young.
Those statements, which the defense tried to suppress before trial, made the case difficult, said Richard Zayas, Rincon-Rincon's attorney.
"None of these guys really have an idea of how the U.S. justice system works at all," Zayas said of cartel members. "They're confused."
Testimony from cooperating witnesses described the cartel as the ultimate authority in its territory across the Texas border.
Rincon-Rincon and three other men were captured by Border Patrol last October near the river. He told authorities he was fleeing cartel infighting.
Prosecutors alleged that in his time as plaza boss, he oversaw the smuggling of 1,100 pounds of marijuana per week into Texas and collected taxes from those moving additional loads.
Zayas, during his closing argument, emphasized to jurors that the government had not presented any evidence definitely linking Rincon-Rincon to loads of drugs that entered the U.S.
Cooperating witnesses testified they saw Rincon-Rincon in Mexico with drug loads and money received from drug smuggling, but the only connection made to him and loads captured in Texas by Border Patrol was the location where they were seized. They were found across the Rio Grande from territory he allegedly controlled for a short period in 2011.
Zayas had said Rincon-Rincon's statements to agents shouldn't be allowed because his client hadn't slept in several days when he made them, was fleeing for his life from cartel rivals and was told he would only be prosecuted for illegal entry.
The attorney argued Friday that Rincon-Rincon took a cut of drugs that other people moved through his territory, but was not responsible for importing them.
"The Gulf cartel is not just about drugs. The Gulf cartel is about extorting people," Zayas said. "Anything that is transported through their area, they want you to pay the piso (toll)."
Prosecutors said they did not need to show that Rincon-Rincon brought the drugs into the U.S. himself because the charges were for conspiring to make that happen.