Bribes, Murder and Scarface: How the Zetas Bought a Mexican Border State

They made sure the place didn’t look like much from the outside, just another plain, unassuming house in the middle of quiet residential neighborhood somewhere in the Mexican border state of Coahuila.

Inside, however, the place was a decked-out safe haven for leaders of the powerful Zetas drug cartel. Testifying in a San Antonio federal courtroom Wednesday, a former top financial advisor to the Zetas remembered helping cartel bosses build what they called the “VIP.” There was the large room with a jacuzzi and a bar with every kind of liquor imaginable, and a part of the house where the cartel kept pit bulls and prisoners. Rodrigo Humberto Uribe Tapia, who claims he helped launder some $50 million in drug proceeds for the cartel before fleeing to the United States in 2009, says a top Zetas commander insisted the place be Scarface-themed. The commander asked that Uribe hang a blown-up image of a scene from the movie where Tony Montana buries his face in cocaine mountain. “He was kind of like an idol to him,” Uribe said on the stand.

Uribe was the first to testify in what’s expected to be the lengthy trial of Marciano Millan Vasquez, who prosecutors claim was a Zetas hitman, or sicario, before assuming control of the gang’s forces in Piedras Negras, a critical city for the cartel because of two international bridges into Eagle Pass that make the area a lucrative smuggling route into Texas.

Millan Vasquez, who was arrested in San Antonio last year, faces multiple charges that could put him in prison for life. Prosecutors are expected to bring evidence that Millan Vasquez was in part responsible for a wave of killings, abductions and disappearances that have paralyzed Coahuila in recent years. One of the charges against Millan Vasquez allows the feds to prosecute him for killings in another country since they claim the violence was tied to a drug trafficking conspiracy that stretched deep into the United States.

In opening statements Wednesday, assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Galdo hinted at some of the grisly testimony expected to come out at trial this week and next: “The defendant killed, the defendant tortured, the defendant dismembered.”

Millan Vasquez’s attorney, Jaime Cavazos, told jurors Wednesday that his client is a simple farmer and insisted that any acts of violence described by paid government informants have nothing to do with him. “This whole trial is about condemning an organization that the federal government cannot reach,” he said. In court, however, Uribe testified to hearing cartel leaders order Millan Vasquez to kill a high-ranking Zetas member who’d angered his cartel bosses. He also testified to seeing Millan Vasquez and other Zetas enforcers covered in blood after killing a phone company worker who’d been listening in on cartel communications.

Uribe’s testimony Wednesday also underscored why a case like Millan Vasquez’s is being tried by federal prosecutors in San Antonio: corruption, bribery and violence have made it virtually impossible to bring such a case in Mexico. According to Uribe, who prosectors say was a frontman for the cartel between 2007 and 2009, when he fled the country to begin working with U.S. law enforcement officials as a confidential informant, the Zetas were able to smuggle drugs, launder money and kill with impunity in Coahuila because of bribes paid to not only local but top state officials.

In his testimony Wednesday, Uribe said he was personally involved in helping deliver bribes to the personal aid of former Coahuila governor Humberto Moreira. On one occasion, Uribe testified that he and other cartel leaders met with the aid in a hotel, delivering some $2 million in cash packed into suitcases. Another time they met the aid at a gas station and passed off another $2 million in vacuum-sealed bags. Uribe testified that the bribes not only allowed cartel members to buy their way out of criminal charges, but also secured cartel bosses’ access to state vehicles and even helicopters to avoid detection from the Mexican military as they moved throughout the region. (Moreira's attorney, who just so happens to be prosecuting Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, told the Express-News yesterday that Uribe's testimony about bribing the governor's office is "pure fantasy.")

Uribe claimed drug money flowing to local and state officials allowed the cartel to set up checkpoints across the state, get around construction permits, and even assume control of a local coal mining company. He testified that the bribes also gave the Zetas near total control of the state prisons, where cartel members had access to whatever they wanted – “Everything,” he testified, “liquor, drugs, women, parties.” Uribe testified that cartel leaders even packaged drugs to load into secret compartments in smuggling vehicles on the Piedras Negras prison grounds.

The testimony alleging widespread corruption among Coahuila state officials comes as the feds investigate whether Moreira and his former aid laundered millions in bribe money in the San Antonio area. Last year the feds moved to seize a San Antonio house linked to the former governor that prosecutors claim was bought with laundered money. 


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