The former leader of a Mexican drug cartel's breakaway faction pleaded guilty Monday in Texas to federal drug and money laundering charges in a deal prosecutors hope could help with other ongoing investigations.
Prosecutors said Ivan Velazquez Caballero, better known as "el Taliban," was a regional boss for the Zetas, the violent former enforcement arm of the Gulf cartel. He pleaded guilty to one count each of drug trafficking conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy stemming from an indictment that accuses dozens of people of smuggling cocaine and marijuana into the U.S.
The charges carry a maximum of life in prison, but prosecutors offered him credit that could result in a shorter sentence in exchange for his plea. Investigators believe that Caballero was at one time responsible for the group's money laundering, which could make him an important source in other cases.
Sentencing is set for July 18.
The criminal acts underlying the charges as occurring between 2001 and 2008, when the Zetas were still part of the Gulf cartel, according to assistant U.S. Attorney Jose Angel Moreno. At the time, the Gulf cartel controlled the eastern end of the Texas-Mexico border. The Zetas eventually spun off into a separate criminal enterprise and finally split from the cartel in early 2010.
Velazquez Caballero was allegedly fighting with the Zetas' leader, Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, when he was captured by Mexican marines in 2012. Velazquez Caballero was extradited to the U.S. in November to face the charges from a 2010 indictment. Trevino Morales, arrested in Mexico in July, was also named in that indictment.
Velazquez Caballero controlled the smuggling in Mexico's Zacatecas and Aguascalientes states, as well as parts of Guanajuato and Coahuila states, Mexican Navy spokesman Jose Luis Vergara said at the time of his arrest. At one time he was also allegedly responsible for the group's money laundering.
During Monday's hearing, U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez told Velazquez Caballero that providing substantial assistance to the government could help him get below a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence. The judge will have the final say his sentence.
However, University of Texas-Brownsville government professor Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, who isn't involved in the case but studies the Zetas, doubted that Velazquez Caballero would have much valuable information. She noted that he has been in U.S. custody for nearly two years and that his knowledge likely doesn't reach all corners of the Zetas because it's such a diversified organization.
Correa-Cabrera said the Zetas is essentially a multinational corporation with diverse revenue streams that include extortion, kidnapping, music and film piracy, as well as mining, stolen gasoline and natural gas. And with its recognized leaders either dead or in custody, the Zetas revenue streams continue under a lower profile.
"They already created their brand and now they are silently continuing to do what they know how to do," she said.
Moreno, the assistant U.S. attorney, said Velazquez Caballero had been involved in the smuggling of cocaine and marijuana into the U.S. and laundering the cartel's drug revenue. The indictment -- which charged 34 people -- said hundreds of loads of cocaine and marijuana were smuggled into Laredo, Texas, and then on to Dallas between 2001 and 2008.
Moreno also said Monday that a government witness had remembered seeing Velazquez Caballero at a Zetas training camp near the Texas town of San Fernando, about two hours south of Brownsville, in 2005. At previous trials, witnesses have testified that Zeta recruits were taught at the camp to raid houses and kill.
Velazquez Caballero, wearing a beige t-shirt and pants and salt-and-pepper beard, gave only short answers when asked direct questions by the judge and otherwise did not speak during the hearing.
A month after Velazquez Caballero was captured, Mexican authorities killed Zetas leader Heriberto Lazcano. It is believed that Omar Trevino Morales has been running the organization since the arrest of his brother Miguel Angel Trevino Morales last year.
Velazquez Caballero is also facing federal drug and money laundering charges in Sherman in the Eastern District of Texas. The trial in that case is scheduled for May.