Federal agents have seized at least $26 million from the drug-empire fortune of Osiel Cardenas Guillen — money he appears to have offered up himself as he sat in U.S. custody, records released Friday show.
Nearly two dozen documents were unsealed by U.S. District Judge Hilda Tagle on Friday in response to the Houston Chronicle's legal objections that too much of the case has been handled behind closed doors.
Those documents reveal that agents seized cartel cash between September 2008 and September 2009 and likely were led to the money by Cardenas, once head of the Gulf Cartel.
Extradited to Houston in 2006, he has been held at an undisclosed location for the past three years.
The records do not say where the money was recovered or whether anyone was arrested, only that it was seized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection.
The $26 million is a fraction of as much as $300 million the government is trying to capture from the wealth of the Gulf Cartel, according to a nearly decade-old federal indictment.
Cardenas is accused of drug and money-laundering, as well as threatening two American federal agents and an undercover officer.
His legal team declined to comment Friday, as did the federal prosecutor's office.
Cardenas' trial was canceled without explanation last year, adding to speculation that a plea agreement was being negotiated in order to grant him leniency or other considerations in exchange for his cooperation.
No plea noted
Several documents in the case remain sealed, and it is unclear if Cardenas has pleaded to charges or reached a deal.
But the cash seizures are repeatedly noted in agreed motions signed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Toni Treviño as well as one of Cardenas' attorneys, Michael Ramsey.
“The United States moves to seal this … in order to protect the integrity of ongoing criminal investigations and preserve confidential information,” the motions say.
The Gulf Cartel is based across the Rio Grande from South Texas.
The cartel uses Houston as a chief launching pad for moving cocaine and marijuana into the United States as well as weapons and cash back to Mexico.
Cardenas, convicted of organized crime charges in Mexico, was extradited to the United States in 2006 to face trial in Houston.
Since then, much of his case has been kept out of public view, with Tagle closing the courtroom to a Chronicle reporter and sealing numerous records. Federal prosecutors asked for the secrecy to protect lives and investigations.
Defending right to know
In a motion filed in federal court, the Chronicle argued, among other things, the public has a right to know what has become of charges against Cardenas — for whom the United States had offered a $2 million reward.
The newspaper asked the judge to unseal the records, which she did after prosecutors and Cardenas' own lawyers agreed with making some of the information public.
Tagle said she would review remaining sealed records and make a decision shortly.
The other records unsealed Friday delve into security issues. Prosecutors have contended the case against Cardenas should be handled in Houston, rather than Brownsville, where he was indicted, because there isn't jail secure enough to hold him there.
Prosecutors also argued that jurors and courthouse personnel would be in jeopardy in Brownsville, which is just across the border from Cardenas' hometown, Matamoros.
His present location is being protected for continued security concerns, but the court papers indicate he has previously been kept in isolation at the federal detention center in downtown Houston as well as a segregated housing unit at a state prison in Beaumont.
By DANE SCHILLER
February 13, 2010
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Feds seize $26 million from drug kingin