The inner workings of what prosecutors say was a sophisticated hit job will go on display Monday, as a trial begins for the men accused of orchestrating the assassination-style slaying of a cartel lawyer in Southlake.
But the brazen shooting of Juan Jesus Guerrero Chapa, reportedly connected to a former Gulf cartel boss, was a rare example of the cartels’ violent influence spilling into an affluent American suburb, where Guerrero lived in a mansion with his family.
The cartels instead often rely on isolated, low-level drug runners to push their goods across the United States, experts and authorities said.
When one of those smugglers gets caught, it’s hard to trace them to high-level cartel figures, who often stay in Mexico to avoid U.S. prosecution.
In Texas, crucial “command and control” cities, such as Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston, receive drugs from the border, and then fuel distribution to the rest of the country, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
Eight cartels have a presence in Texas, including the powerful Sinaloa, Gulf and Los Zetas organizations, the DEA’s annual report shows.
The numbers tell part of the story: In September, the Texas Department of Public Safety reported 12 million drug seizures worth $82 billion since 2006. Nationally, authorities seized about $232 million in cash during that span.
“These sophisticated, violent criminal organizations are trafficking drugs and people into the United States through the Texas border every day, while transporting cash, weapons and stolen vehicles back to Mexico,” a DPS spokesman said in a statement to the Star-Telegram.
What authorities catch is easily outpaced by what the cartels pocket — DPS estimates $19 billion to $29 billion flows from the U.S. back to Mexico each year.
“I don’t think they really give a hell about what [authorities] do,” said former FBI agent Arturo Fontes, who advises the sheriff’s office in Laredo, a key border crossing at the start of Interstate 35.
Craig Patty, who owns a small trucking business in the Fort Worth area, saw the cartel’s impact up close.
In October 2011, he hired Lawrence Chapa — no relation to Guerrero Chapa— to drive a truck for his new sand-hauling business.
As it turned out, Chapa was a paid government informant.
A month into driving for Patty, Chapa coordinated a drug buy in Rio Grande City, near the Mexico border, and then went north toward Houston, hauling 300 pounds of marijuana in the cab of Patty’s red Kenworth semi.
But when Chapa reached Harris County, men in three SUVs ran him off the road, stormed the truck and fatally shot him, before turning their guns on authorities.
The Houston Chronicle described attackers as a “hit team” connected to the Zetas cartel, the former fighting wing of the Gulf cartel.
The incident cost Patty his driver and about $133,000 — from repairs to 100 days of lost business. His insurance wouldn’t cover the costs, and a federal judge ruled against him when he sued the DEA for damages.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans upheld the judge’s ruling this year. Patty’s lawyers are preparing a petition to the Supreme Court.
Through five years of research, Patty hasn’t found anyone else who experienced a similar dilemma.
But it wasn’t out of the ordinary that Chapa, a middle-aged trucker with a thick white mustache, was able to find work moving drugs.
He had done it before —and been paid $5,000 by the government— and his initial offer by a border contact was for 1,800 pounds of marijuana, not 300, according to court documents.
Chapa, with access to a truck, knew how to play the role of a “mule,” a third-party smuggler cartels use to push their drugs from the border to the big cities.
“The mule doesn’t know a whole lot other than who pays him, where he picked it up and where he dropped it off,” said Johnny Sutton, U.S. attorney from 2001 to 2009 for the Western District of Texas, which covers San Antonio to El Paso.
Sutton said the isolation strategy helps mid- to upper-level cartel members avoid U.S. prosecution, an “absolutely vital” part in the government’s fight against the cartels.
“The universal consensus [among cartel members] is that they would much prefer to deal with the law enforcement and justice system in Mexico than in the United States,” Sutton said. “A [U.S.] federal judge isn’t going to take a bribe. And when you go to prison in the U.S., we can isolate you, so you won’t be able to control the cartel from prison. They get perks in Mexican prisons.”
Once they cross the border, drugs are moved along major highways, such as I-35 starting in Laredo, to hubs such as Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston.
Besides the Sinaloa, Gulf and Zetas groups, the Juarez, Knights Templar, Beltran-Leyva and Jalisco New Generation cartels are active in Texas.
Each cartel’s hub, or cell, is often operated independently of the others, experts say, creating more layers of protection between the drug lords in Mexico and the illegal money being made in the U.S.
“The cell in North Texas does not know what the cell in Chicago is doing or the one in Phoenix,” said Phil Jordan, the former head of DEA offices in Dallas and El Paso. “In case one of them gets popped, they cannot give up the L.A. cell or New York cell.”
Guerrero’s killing in 2013 was a patient, calculated conspiracy, according to prosecutors.
The three suspects arrested in September 2014 — Jesus Gerardo Ledezma-Cepeda and his son, Jesus Gerardo Ledezma-Campano, and Jose Luis Cepeda-Cortes — started stalking him as early as 2011, a federal criminal complaint says.
Case documents say they traveled to Southlake several times and rented an apartment in nearby Grapevine, set up surveillance cameras in Guerrero’s gated neighborhood and placed a GPS monitor on his car.
They rented and bought numerous vehicles so they could change cars quickly to avoid detection, according to case documents.
Early in the search, a fourth co-conspirator, Luis Lauro Ramirez-Bautista, told a Border Patrol officer he was looking for Guerrero and showed the officer a picture of Guerrero’s home, prosecutors alleged. Ramirez-Bautista, according to case filings, told the officer Guerrero was a drug dealer who should be deported to Mexico.
When that didn’t work, Ramirez-Bautista sent a drug dealer four times from November 2012 to January 2013 to pay Ledezma-Cepeda a total of $38,000, according to documents.
The scheme, prosecutors allege, culminated on May 22, 2013, when Guerrero and his wife returned to their Range Rover after shopping at Southlake Town Square.
As they placed bags in the SUV, a Toyota Sequoia pulled up beside them and a man shot Guerrero 10 times.
Guerrero’s exact role in the Gulf cartel could become clearer during this week’s trial.
Attorneys for Ledezma-Cepeda filed documents last month saying he was the “de facto” head of the Gulf cartel at the time of his death.
An investigation by The Dallas Morning News published last week described Guerrero as a liaison between the cartel and U.S. authorities.
After Osiel Cardenas, a former Gulf cartel head, reached a plea agreement with the U.S. in 2010 — a deal that included $50 million in forfeitures — Guerrero hauled money to authorities. He would retrieve trunk-loads of cash from bunkers in Mexico and take it to authorities at the border, the News reported.
But Jordan said it’s “delusional” to think Guerrero had the same power as Cardenas.
“If you want to give him credit for being in charge of a cell, as well as an attorney for the bad guys, that’s one thing,” Jordan said. “But to say he was the head of the cartel, that’s not accurate.”
High-level cartel leaders, Jordan emphasized, don’t live in the United States, especially not in an affluent suburb such as Southlake.
In a prepared statement, the DEA’s Dallas office says cartels “have representatives living inside the United States to facilitate drug trafficking activities.”
“These representatives are sent to the U.S. on a short-term, rotating basis and return to Mexico to avoid drawing law enforcement scrutiny.”
Authorities, then, are left to poke holes in the cartels through undercover operations or at the border.
“So, I might not be getting the top cartel guy, but I might get a smaller version or smaller group that’s within a chain,” Houston police officer Fernando Villasana, the task force agent who worked with Lawrence Chapa, testified, according to court documents.
At the border, “the smugglers are only limited by their imagination,” said Roger Maier, a spokesman with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office in El Paso.
Border officers find drugs taped beneath seat cushions, hidden in secret compartments in ceilings of cars, and packed inside the quarter panels of SUVs.
Sometimes, Maier said, smugglers will weld one pickup bed on top of another, creating a thin opening to smuggle packets of heroin. Inside large trucks, drugs can be stored in boxes of ceramic tiles, between shingles and within spools of cable.
About 35,000 vehicles cross into El Paso each day, Maier said. Border officers briefly check each one at an initial checkpoint a couple of hundred yards north of the international border.
The “no man’s land” buffer zone, Maier explained, allows officers to sweep lines of cars with police dogs.
If the dogs detect something unusual — or an officer notices something at the checkpoint — the vehicle is sent to a secondary checkpoint, where officers can use equipment such as X-rays and fiber-optic scopes.
Last week, officers caught a Dallas woman trying to smuggle more than $1 million of methamphetamine inside the tires of her SUV.
“There’s really not too much new under the sun,” said Maier, who arrived at the El Paso office in 1992. “I think what’s changed is who the smuggler is. It used to be a single male traveling. Now, you see teenagers, senior citizens, family units. A father may be traveling with his wife and kids, and they’re not aware Dad is hauling a bunch of dope.”
Truck driver informant
Craig Patty just thought Chapa was an experienced truck driver — not an informant who knew how to make a drug run.
One of Patty’s drivers met Chapa at random in September 2011 when they roomed together at an overnight training session in Fort Worth. Chapa told Patty’s driver he wanted to work for a smaller business.
“As a company driver, you’re on a real short leash,” Patty said. “If you have repair issues or problems, they’re going to tell you to go to their yard. you’re not going to be able to pick and choose your own shop to go to.”
Patty hired Chapa, and the driver soon took advantage of the flexibility.
On his way back from his first cross-country job in California, Chapa called Patty from New Mexico with a list of repairs.
But with Thanksgiving a week away, the North Texas shops were backed up. Chapa instead suggested driving Patty’s truck to Houston, where his buddy already had parts on the shelf.
Patty agreed on a Friday, going into the weekend thinking Chapa would return the truck in a week. Patty received a call early the next Tuesday.
“You’re driver’s dead,” Patty remembered hearing, “and the truck was in Houston and it’s got a bunch of weed in it.”
After the firefight, a TV news helicopter hovered above the scene, showing Patty’s wrecked truck.
“The footage,” according to Patty’s lawsuit filed in 2013, “clearly depicted the license plate of Patty’s truck, making him fear, of course, that his identity would be discovered by the Zeta cartel and that they, believing he had cooperated with Chapa and the Task Force, might seek retribution.”
Patty’s fears went away, though he’s still cautious and declined to have his picture taken for this story.
In his original administrative complaint, Patty sought $1.3 million for his truck repairs ($30,000) and business losses ($66,000), and for “personal injury” damages.
He’s still pursuing the lawsuit for compensation, but also because “this isn’t how you want your life defined by an incident like this.”
“You don’t want it to be the asterisk beside your name,” he said.
The red Kenworth truck used to smuggle drugs to Houston now hauls sand along the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania. Patty’s drivers call it “Bullet.”