Juan García Ábrego (born September 13, 1944) is a former Mexican drug lord who started out his criminal career under the tutelage of his uncle Juan Nepomuceno Guerra, who is reported to be the former head of a criminal dynasty along the U.S.-Mexico border now called the Gulf Cartel.
United States intelligence reports state Guerra reared his nephew on car theft before passing down his criminal enterprise. The exact date of succession is unknown; however, law enforcement officials recall an incident on January 27, 1987 when Tomás Morlet, former officer in an elite Mexican police force turned national trafficker, exchanged harsh words with García Ábrego and was later found, shot twice in the back in the doorway of Guerra's Piedras Negras Restaurant.
Reports date his trafficking career beginning in the mid-1970s exporting marijuana from Mexico into the U.S. states of Texas, Louisiana and Florida. In the early 1980s he began incorporating cocaine into the cartel's trafficking operations. García Ábrego is widely known for innovating Mexican trafficking operations, turning them from smugglers into suppliers. By renegotiating deals with the Cali Cartel, García Ábrego was able to secure 50% of every shipment out of Colombia as payment for delivery, instead of the $1,500 USD per kilo they were previously receiving. The renegotiating however brought a price, the cartel would have to guarantee any shipment from Colombia to its destination. This change forced García Ábrego to begin stockpiling hundreds of tons of cocaine along Mexico's northern border in warehouses, however it allowed him to set up his own distribution network and expand his political influence. By the end of the 1980s and into the early 1990s it was estimated García Ábrego was smuggling over 300 metric tons per year across the US-Mexico border.
Once the cocaine crossed the border into the United States it was believed to reach distribution networks across the country in cities such as San Antonio, Houston and New York City, with smaller elements in Dallas, Chicago, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, California and Arizona.
In addition to transporting cocaine for the Cali Cartel, it was believed the García Ábrego cartel would also ship large quantities of cash to be laundered. The United States Department of Justice would confiscate over $53 million USD between 1989 and 1993 that was being laundered through two corrupt American Express employees as proof of such large scale operations. In 1994 the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) believed García Ábrego was making as much as $10 billion USD per year in profit. The following years Fortune Magazine estimated the García Ábrego empire to be worth $15 billion USD.
García Ábrego was also involved in providing protection to other cartels wishing to operate within corridors already claimed by his organization. In the mid-1980s, Carlos Reséndez set up a meeting between García Ábrego and Gernando "El Aguacate" Martínez, regarding permission for Martínez to move cocaine through Matamoros. García Ábrego permitted him to do so in exchange for $200k USD per airplane flying through the region. It was later revealed to García Ábrego that Martínez began moving planes through the region without paying the fee. García Ábrego reached out to an FBI agent, Claudio de la O, who he was bribing, to have the men taken care of. Claudio de la O alluded to having the men killed, however they were taken into custody.
Juan García Ábrego's web of corruption was believed to stretch to all aspects of the Ernesto Zedillo government. Upon García Ábrego's arrest a book detailing the scale of bribery was located. From examining the contents it became known that the head of Federal Judicial Police (FJP) was receiving $1 million USD, force operations chief was receiving $500,000 USD and the federal police commander of the Gulf Cartels base of operations in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, was receiving $100,000 USD. The book detailed the payments less as bribes and more as what García Ábrego would consider to be a tax on business. In an article published in the Mexican daily El Financiero it was alleged García Ábrego had infiltrated 95% of the Attorney Generals Office. It would later be revealed that a commander in the Procuraduria General de la Republica (the federal attorney-general's office, PGR), López Parra, was receiving $1.5 million per month in bribes; López Parra was the head of northern Mexico.
García Ábrego's ties however extended beyond the Mexican government and into the United States. With the arrest of one of García Ábrego's traffickers, Juan Antonio Ortiz, it became known the cartel would ship tons of cocaine in United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) buses between the years of 1986 to 1990. The buses made great transportation, as Antonio Ortiz noted, since they were never stopped at the border.
It also became known that, in addition to the INS bus scam, García Ábrego had a "special deal" with members of the Texas National Guard who would truck tons of cocaine and marijuana from South Texas to Houston for the cartel.
García Ábrego's reach became known when a United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent named Claude de la O, in 1986, stated in testimony against García Ábrego that he received over $100,000 USD in bribes and had leaked information that could have endangered an FBI informant as well as Mexican journalists. In 1989 Claude was removed from the case for unknown reasons, retiring a year later. García Ábrego bribed the agent in an attempt to gather more information on U.S. law enforcement operations.
García Ábrego's arrest was even subject to allegations of corruption. It is believed the Mexican government knew all García Ábrego's whereabouts all along and had refused to arrest him due to information he possessed about the extent of corruption within the government. The arresting officer, a FJP commander, is believed to have received a bullet-proof Mercury Grand Marquis and $500,000 USD from a rival cartel for enacting the arrest of García Ábrego.
Further theories put forward allege the arrest of García Ábrego was to satisfy U.S. demands and meet certification, from the Department of Justice (DOJ), as a trade partner, the vote set to take place on March 1. García Ábrego was apprehended on January 14, 1996, and Mexico shortly after received certification on March 1.
On May 16, 1984, it is believed García Ábrego ordered a hit on rival trafficker Casimiro Espinosa, the murder attempt failed, leaving Casimiro injured. The following day gunmen shot their way into Raya Clinic, a private hospital, looking for Casimiro. In the ten-minute shootout that followed, 300 rounds had been fired and multiple people were left dead, including a security guard, a husband and child, and a bed-ridden woman. Casimiro died the following day due to injuries sustained in the shoot out.
Two years after the 1984 clinic shoot out, Ernesto Flores, an editor for the Mexican daily newspaper El Popular, was executed. It is believed García Ábrego did it after being aggravated with their coverage of the cartel's deeds. Flores car was sprayed with gunfire as gunmen waited at the entrance of the newspaper. Norma Morena, a reporter for the newspaper was also killed in the attack.
In 1991, a principal member of the Gulf Cartel, Tomás "Gringo" Sánchez, ordered the killing of a Colombian drug trafficker who was in a prison in Matamoros. The killing was not authorized by García Ábrego and subsequently a riot broke out killing two members of the Gulf Cartel. García Ábrego, furious with the media attention that followed the riot, ordered the killing of Sánchez for overstepping his authority and bringing unwanted attention to the cartel.
Juan García Ábrego had grown to such lengths that he was placed on the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation Top Ten Most Wanted List in 1995. He has the distinction of being the first drug trafficker to ever be placed on that list. He was arrested on a ranch outside of Monterrey, Nuevo León, on January 14, 1996. He was quickly extradited to the United States, where he stood trial eight months after his arrest. García Ábrego was convicted on 22 counts including money laundering, drug trafficking, intent to distribute and running an ongoing criminal enterprise. After a four-week trial, a jury needed only 12 hours to convict García Ábrego on all charges. He was sentenced by presiding judge Ewing Werlein, Jr., to 11 consecutive life terms, and is currently incarcerated at ADX Florence in Florence, Colorado. In addition to the prison sentencing García Ábrego was forced to turn over millions in illegal proceeds, the United States Government requested US$1.05 billion, however the jury after an hour of deliberation only agreed to US$350 million. García Ábrego's lawyer, Mr. Canales, stated it was "a symbolic grab at nothing" since García Ábrego did not reside in the United States nor have any assets in the country.
Prior to García Ábrego's arrest he had been discussing terms in which he would surrender to authorities. Those terms included medical treatment for his jailed brother's diabetes, one last trip to Colombia before his surrender, conjugal visits from his mistress, to be jailed in Guadalajara, Jalisco, with some of his lieutenants, for his own protection and to allow himself to be taken in by the police commander of his choice. Mexican government officials however denied the requests.
Following the arrest of García Ábrego, Osiel Cárdenas Guillen took over the cartel. Cárdenas was known for founding the para-military group Los Zetas as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel. Cárdenas was captured by the Mexican Army after a battle on March 14, 2003 in Matamoros.
In February 2010, Los Zetas engaged in a violent turf war against its former employer/partner, the Gulf Cartel, in the border city of Reynosa, Tamaulipas, rendering some border towns to "ghost towns".
One night on August 1993, U.S. authorities in Brownsville, Texas managed to get an interview with Francisco Pérez, the cousin and long-time crime partner of García Ábrego who decided to turn himself in and declare high-profile information of the cartel in exchange for protection. He had charges pending in the United States that could have meant spending a life behind bars, but Pérez wanted to make a deal. Behind close doors and with a tape-recorder, the Customs and FBI began the interrogation that lasted until sunrise the next morning. According to the FBI, Pérez talked about García Ábrego's personal life: his tales of assassinations, bribes, love affairs, and recollections of García Ábrego in tears. He also drew photographs identifying García Ábrego and pinpointed with a map some of the ranches, businesses, and houses he owned in the northern states of Nuevo León and Tamaulipas. As federal agents pressed him for details, Pérez declared that García Ábrego liked drinking tequila and Carta Blanca beer, preferred boots with zippers, always wore a V-neck T-shirt, and followed baseball, the sport he played when he was a young boy. He also described how García Ábrego used to buy shopping goods in McAllen, Texas – as much as US$80,000 – for Mexican officials and their families. While García Ábrego usually made deals, he was also described as a short-tempered man who was not hesitant to kill people that stood in his way. Reportedly, he once ordered his bodyguards to kill his mistress' ex-lover because he would not leave her alone. He also allegedly killed the former boyfriend of one of his three sisters for always calling his family's house number and murdered an air-conditioning repairman for failing to fix a newly installed unit. True or false, Pérez's stories were in line with García Ábrego's "allegations of bloodshed."
To ensure that he was not captured, García Ábrego reportedly moved from place to place with an entourage of bodyguards, using secret cellphone number codes that constantly changed. But this lifestyle as the top drug kingpin in his criminal underworld kept him under huge stress; Pérez recalled that his cousin took "tranquilizers like candy" to help him sleep at night. Through an intermediary, García Ábrego helped pay the bills of his ill mother in hospitals throughout Brownsville and Houston, Texas (his mother is now buried in a cemetery in Matamoros, Tamaulipas). Reportedly, García Ábrego was a spiritual man, and there were unconfirmed suspicions that he was involved with a group of devil-worshipers in the 1980s, although he was never reported to have ties with a cult. Pérez indicated that García Ábrego had scars over his left eye and on his wrist, and said that he might have possibly undergone plastic surgery to change his appearance. He also said that his cousin had many mansions with pools, and at one time or another he would invest his drug proceeds in legitimate businesses across northern Mexico, including a steel industry, a truck line, and a meat-packing company in Monterrey. García Ábrego, however, was not openly ostentatious; he never travelled with large sums of money, dressed modestly, and his only hint of his riches was his diamond-crusted Rolex. Reports say that he liked to buy around five trucks a week and preferred tinted windows. He also reportedly once gave US$50,000 to former FBI agent Claude De la O – not as a bribe, but as a Christmas present. Moreover, García Ábrego allegedly never formally married but had two common-law wives, a number of lovers, and several children. The Brownsville Herald stated in 1995 that he adopted a child who may still live in Brownsville.
Pérez said that García Ábrego would change telephone numbers constantly and would be suspicious of anyone who was not where they were supposed to be when they were supposed to be there. The drug lord protected his family, preferred to speak face-to-face, and always carried a pistol.
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