- REUTERS/Henry Romero
In summer 1999, Salvador “El Chava” Gomez, who had helped guide the Gulf cartel to the top of Mexico’s narco hierarchy, was gunned down, reportedly on the orders of his long-time friend and partner, Osiel Cardenas Guillen.
The killing earned Cardenas the nickname, “El Mata Amigos,” or “the friend killer.”
And while he hated that name, he didn’t let it distract from his lunge for power.
It took just a few months for him to feel secure enough to launch the standoff that made Cardenas a marked man for US authorities, who would eventually bring him down.
‘You f—— gringos’
US Drug Enforcement Administration agent Joe DuBois and FBI agent Daniel Fuentes were driving through the streets of Matamoros – just across the border from Brownsville, Texas – on November 9, 1999, in a white Ford Bronco with diplomatic plates.
Accompanying them was an informant – a reporter for a small local Mexican newspaper, specializing in covering crime. The informant was giving DuBois and Fuentes a tour of cartel members’ homes and of stash houses they used for smuggling drugs north to the US.
During their excursion, DuBois told the Houston Chronicle in 2010, they drove by a house belonging to Cardenas – a big pink house equipped with security cameras.
- (AP Photo/Claudio Cruz)
They soon had a tail, which turned into several vehicles that trailed the agents and their informant through the city’s streets. They were eventually cornered not far from city police headquarters by at least three vehicles, one of which was driven by a state police officer who had defected to the cartel.
“They had an informant in the back seat that pointed out Osiel Cardenas’ house. As they started to leave the area, people belonging the Gulf cartel, the Zetas, stopped the vehicle, and they wanted the informant,” Mike Vigil, former chief of international operations for the DEA, told Business Insider.
More then a dozen men, some dressed in police uniforms, surrounded them with assault rifles, while others nearby directed traffic.
“The only way we were getting out was to talk our way out,” DuBois told the Chronicle. Cardenas, decked out with a Colt pistol with a gold grip and a gold-plated AK-47, marched over to the agents, pounding on their car and demanding they step out and surrender the informant.
“Here is the (expletive) that is going to kill me today,” DuBois thought at the time.
- (AP Photo/El Imparcial)
“The agents refused to give up the informant, and Osiel Cardenas’ people then wanted to kill the agents and kill the informant right there,” Vigil said.
DuBois and Fuentes were both well aware of what had happened to Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, a DEA agent kidnapped by members of the then-powerful Guadalajara cartel in 1985. Camarena was killed, and his body, bound, gagged, and stuffed in bags, was found a month afterwards.
“I knew what they’d do to me,” DuBois told the Chronicle. “I’d seen many pictures of the bodies they leave behind.”
“Dan and I decided, if we are going to die, we are going to die here,” he said.
They identified themselves – Fuentes even flashed his badge. DuBois, who grew up in Mexico and was a police officer in Brownsville, said Cardenas kept saying, “I don’t give a damn who you are.” Cardenas changed tack, telling the agents that they could just turn over the informant. They didn’t budge.
Outmanned, outgunned, and with no backup, the pair had little intention of surrendering themselves to the horrors the cartel was sure to commit. Fuentes, who had been a member of the Houston FBI SWAT team, had a pistol by his side.
“Unless they got Danny in a head shot, Osiel was coming with us,” DuBois said.
- (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
The only strategy that could allow them to emerge unscathed was one that gave Cardenas a way to exit the situation in a manner that preserved his pride in front of his gang.
Appeals to morality were unlikely to sway a cartel chieftain, so they appealed to his sense of self-preservation. They invoked the memory of Camarena, who’s killing had brought down the wrath of the US government, which apprehended top Guadalajara cartel members and ultimately fractured the cartel.
“I replied, ‘You don’t care now, but tomorrow and the next day and the rest of your life, you’ll regret anything stupid you might do right now,'” DuBois told the Chronicle. “You are fixing to make 300,000 enemies.”
“The DEA agent told Cardenas, ‘Hey, you heard of what happened with the Guadalajara cartel when they killed ‘Kiki’ Camarena, and the same thing is going to happen to you,'” Vigil said.
The specter of recriminations from US authorities carried weight with Cardenas. He withdrew, but not without bluster.
- Mexico Attorney Generals Office/AP
“You f—— gringos,” he yelled. “This is my town, so get the f— out here before I kill all of you. Don’t ever come back.”
The cartel blockade quickly departed. DuBois and Fuentes headed for the border with their informant. They were eventually given the US Attorney General’s award for exceptional heroism, and the informant still lives in the US.
“These guys were the most bloodthirsty killers in the Western Hemisphere. I was positive I wasn’t going to make it,” DuBois told the Chronicle. “Like Danny said, this is probably the first time anybody had said ‘No’ to Osiel and lived to talk about it.”
- REUTERS/Courtesy of the Mexican attorney general
Cardenas, still at the top of the vaunted Gulf cartel, was unfazed by his brush with the long arm of US law.
“The following month, no doubt feeling his power at its apex, like any generous CEO, he threw a lavish New Year’s party for his cartel associates, close friends, and family to ring in the new millennium at a posh disco in Cancún,” journalist Michael Deibert wrote in his 2014 book, “In the Shadow of Saint Death.”
Cardenas walked away from his run-in with DuBois and Fuentes, but the showdown resonated with US authorities. Cardenas soon found himself among the US’s most wanted criminals.
A year after the incident, he was indicted by a federal grand jury in Brownsville on charges of assaulting a federal police officer and narcotics smuggling.
The FBI then offered a $2 million reward for his arrest or the arrest of either of his top two lieutenants, Juan Manuel Garza Rendon, who turned himself over to US authorities in June 2001, and Adan Medrano, who was arrested in March 2002 (Garza was released in April 2009).
Cardenas would not long outlast his underlings.
He was arrested in March 2003 after a shootout between hundreds of his bodyguards and Mexican soldiers in Matamoros.
- Alexandre Meneghini/AP
He pleaded guilty in the US to five felonies, including threatening to assault and murder federal agents and drug trafficking. In 2010, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Cardenas is behind bars, but his impact endures. As Gulf cartel leader, he helped lure away several members of the Mexican special forces, bringing them on to form the cartel’s enforcement wing. The allegiances would not last long, however.
Divisions between Los Zetas, as they became known, and the Gulf cartel emerged in the mid- to late-2000s, and the Zetas broke away not long after his extradition.
The Zetas have committed some of the most heinous acts of violence in Mexico’s drug war and remnants of them, along with remnants of the Gulf cartel, are still competing for control of parts of northern and eastern Mexico.