U.S. Marshals stood cautiously as Jose Luis “Comandante Wicho” Zuniga Hernandez took to the microphone in order to speak before U.S. Magistrate Ronald Morgan.
During the hearing, a firm, but respectful Zuniga waived his right to a detention hearing and an examining trial, Morgan granted the motions and ordered he be held without bail.
Zuniga was arrested Friday afternoon by U.S. authorities; however details of the arrest remain unclear. Court records state that he was arrested by U.S. Border Patrol agents near Santa Maria, a town along the Rio Grande near the Cameron-Hidalgo County line.
However, a source outside law enforcement but with knowledge of the case said that Zuniga, his brother, a man named Juan Del Rincon and a fourth unnamed man turned themselves in to the U.S. authorities at the Los Indios International Bridge.
The source also said Del Rincon is either a current or former Tamaulipas police officer. That information couldn’t be confirmed with U.S. authorities; however court records show that at the time of the arrest, Zuniga was in possession of a .38 caliber handgun and freely admitted to being a Mexican national without documents in the U.S.
Zuniga’s arrest comes amid fierce infighting within the Gulf Cartel since at least early September, when Samuel “Metro 3” Flores Borrego, the plaza boss for the Reynosa area, was found fatally shot.Since then, widespread firefights have broken out across the Gulf Cartel’s territory in northern Tamaulipas, with much of the bloodshed coming from rivals once loyal to the same side.
The source said Zuniga called it quits after a lot of his forces were decimated during the infighting and that he crossed to the U.S. in an effort to save himself, presumably in exchange for cooperation.
One day before Zuniga turned himself in, the two warring factions of the Gulf Cartel, more commonly referred to as the Metros and Rojos, clashed in Control Ramirez, a town near Matamoros and that is known as Wicho’s home base.
“What we’re seeing on a daily basis is ... a lot of changes in the Gulf Cartel,” said one U.S. law enforcement official. “We just don’t know, but what I think everybody agrees on is there’s some infighting that’s going on, and the landscape is changing a bit.”
Court records do not indicate Zuniga’s role within the Gulf Cartel.
Zuniga has led the Matamoros plaza of the Gulf Cartel since the death of Ezequiel Cárdenas Guillén, better known by his nickname “Tony Tormenta,” or “Tony the Storm.” Mexican soldiers killed Cárdenas and scores of others in fiery street battles in Matamoros in November 2010. Zuniga called the shots from his base of operations in the town of Control Ramirez, near Los Indios International Bridge.
A Mexican military source confirmed that control of Matamoros fell once again into the hands of Mario Cardenas Guillen, the brother of jailed drug lord Osiel Cardenas Guillen and uncle of recently jailed Rafael “El Junior” Cardenas Vela.
A U.S. Magistrate Judge in Brownsville unsealed court records in Zuniga’s case on Friday. His arrest makes him the third Gulf Cartel capo to be detained in recent weeks by federal authorities. Eudoxio Ramos Garcia, 34, was detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents Thursday at a house in Rio Grande City. Ramos has been identified as the former Gulf Cartel boss over operations in Miguel Alemán, across the U.S.-Mexico border from Roma. And perhaps the highest profile arrest came in Port Isabel on Oct. 20, when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents detained Rafael “El Junior” Cárdenas Vela.
“El Junior” is the nephew of Osiel Cárdenas Guillen, the former Gulf Cartel kingpin extradited to the U.S. in 2006 and sentenced to 25 years in prison last year. The nephew was considered a rising leader within the cartel.
A U.S. law enforcement official not authorized to speak to the press said some of the infighting could trickle into the U.S., such as a Sunday shooting in which members of a U.S. prison gang were hired by Gulf Cartel members to recuperate a drug load. The effort turned bad very quickly when Hidalgo County Sheriff’s deputies intervened and a shootout ensued, leaving one man dead and three injured, including a deputy.
George W. Grayson, author of “Mexico: Narcoviolence and A Failed State,” said the infighting has debilitated the Gulf Cartel to the point that the Sinaloa Cartel has started moving its troops into Tamaulipas in an apparent land-grabbing move.
“There is no love lost for the Gulf Cartel,” Grayson said. “They have had a comfortable agreement to destroy the Zetas, but that is about the extent of their relation.”
According to Grayson, the Zetas also have been weakened by a push by Mexican authorities into Veracruz and are scrambling to hold on to that territory.
“El Chapo (Joaquin Guzman Loera, head of Sinaloa Cartel) is the 800-pound gorilla,” Grayson said.
According to Grayson, Guzman’s organization is trying to acquire as much territory as possible in order to be in a better negotiating position for next year’s presidential election in Mexico.