The Gulf Cartel Leaders The US Should Target for the Matamoros Attack

“HEARST” and “Morogris” for Borderland Beat 

A review of the top five Gulf Cartel figures who are likely responsible for the kidnapping and killing of Americans last week in Matamoros. 

This is a continuation of our previous stories covering the kidnapping of the Americans, the potential motivation, and the Gulf Cartel’s later apology message.

Alleged Leaked Intelligence Slides 

On March 11, 2023, the cartel news Twitter account Sin Censura Tamps posted a number of slides which allegedly show DEA intelligence on the Gulf Cartel. More slides were posted by other account soon after.

Much like the Guacamaya leaks on the Sinaloa Cartel (covered here), these slides contained some information which was outdated.

The slides depict Jose Alfredo Cardenas Martinez, alias “El Contador”, as the leader of the Gulf Cartel’s Matamoros faction with no acknowledgement of the fact that he is currently in prison, having been arrested in March 2022.

Now, there is evidence to suggest that El Contador continues to hand down orders from inside jail – and he may still be one of the leaders of the group, however, it’s very likely that these slides were created before March 2022.

Some of the slides show men who are relevant to the cartel group, but difficult to research, and presumably, equally hard to indict for US law enforcement aiming to take action after the kidnapping of Americans.

As an example, one slide shows Armando López Garcés, alias “El Pajarito”, who they allege is 3rd in command. Unfortunately, the only information available online about El Pajarito comes from articles covering the leaked intelligence slides.

Why We Need To Narrow Down From These Slides

The slides depict the overall Gulf Cartel and were most likely not created in reaction to the recent attack.

The information on the slides can help us develop a starting list of Gulf Cartel figures but there is a glaring need to narrow it down further.

Take for example, Pablo Misael Ramos Lamas, alias “Pantera 24”.

Now, the Centro faction is allied with the Matamoros faction, but that does not diminish the fact that this group has its own distinct identity and functions as a separate group.

Furthermore, the intelligence slide lists out the municipality of Abasolo as being the region where Pantera 24 operates, however the most recent local reports actually place him in Soto la Marina, as seen in this previous Borderland Beat story from last month.

The geographic distance between Matamoros and Soto la Marina, as seen on the map above, helps illustrate the need to narrow down and update from that information to just the targets that seem the most relevant to the attack on the Americans.

The Basis of Their Leadership 

If you asked locals living in Matamoros who is charge of their city’s Gulf Cartel group, they’d tell you that it’s the Cardenas Guillen family, headed by Osiel Cardenas, or Alfredo Cardenas Martinez, alias “El Contador” – the black sheep of the Cardenas family.

The trouble with this answer is that Osiel Cardenas and El Contador are both currently in prison.

Osiel is serving time in the US prison Terra Haute, Indiana, having been extradited out of Mexico in 2007. He was sentenced to serve 25 years for the 22 federal crimes he was found guilty of in 2010. Those 25 years were, however, included time served – meaning all the years he spent in prison back in Mexico counted towards the 25. Osiel has an expected release date within next year, on August 30, 2024.

Meanwhile, El Contador is imprisoned in Mexico, after being arrested in March 2022 on charges related to the homicide of 15 people in Reynosa. The US has signaled that they are interested in extraditing him, publicly indicting him shortly after he was arrested. The extradition, however, is still pending.

Both Contador and Osiel have previously proven that they can lead parts of the Gulf Cartel from inside prison, handing out orders to visitors and through secret, coded messages. Osiel had previously entrusted some of his brothers to carry out his orders, acting as his proxy in day-to-day leadership. 

El Contador, while technically a member of the Cardenas family, has always viewed himself as an outsider in the family. 

He created his own group of loyalists within the group, known as Espartanos, and has his own leadership proxies on the outside that remain somewhat separate from Osiel’s current proxies.

The tension between the leadership figures receiving orders from Osiel versus those receiving them from Contador became public in June 2022 when La Kena, an Osiel figure, allegedly attempted to overthrow Contador’s son Axel Cárdenas – the heir apparent to the Matamoros faction. 

For more details on that, please see this previous story. 

Top Five Matamoros-Specific Targets 

After the March 3rd kidnapping of four Americans, many news organizations wrote articles (such as the Daily Mail, Vice, and El Financiero) covering the cartel figure José Garcia Villano, alias “La Kena”. These articles alleged that Kena, despite being just one among many, was the man responsible for the incident. 

The news fixation on him makes it highly likely that Kena will be arrested in the coming months, however, there are plenty of cartel figures in Matamoros who deserve equal notoriety because they have an equal degree of power and even closer ties to either El Contador or the Cardenas Guillen family.

The following is our review of the top five targets we believe play a leadership role within the group.

La Kena is believed to have acted as the second-in-command and right-hand-man of El Contador when he was the leader of the CDG Matamoros faction. Kena was likely in charge of managing day-to-day operations for Contador. 

Then, in March 2022, Contador was arrested, leading to a succession crisis. Both Kena and Axel Cardenas, Contador’s son, attempted to take control of the Matamoros faction. Who ultimately won out between the two is still unclear to this day and the power struggle may still be ongoing. 

That being said, it appears that La Kena feels comfortable publicly acting as the leader, as seen in July 2021, when he signed a peace treaty as the representative for the Matamoros faction. 

The treaty, which was later immortalized as a public banner, promised that the collective Matamoros alliance would submit to a ceasefire with the rival Gulf Cartel faction of Los Metros following an outbreak of violence which left 15 dead in Reynosa

Raul Garcia Martinez is a high-ranking Gulf Cartel member who has been active in the organization since the early 2000s. In 2004, he was arrested with gang member Fredy Chabelas Lara following a shootout with AFI members in Matamoros. They were arrested with an arsenal that included five AR-15 rifles, one G-3 rifle, three MP5 submachine guns, three 9 mm pistols, 1,278 rounds of ammunition, 35 gun magazines and clips and four grenades.

In the gunfight, Escorpion 2 and his associate killed agent Martín Rodela Rosas. At that time media outlets stated Escorpion 2 was a member of the faction headed by Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen (“Tony Tormenta”) and Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez (“El Coss”). He was sent to Mexico City for his criminal proceedings and likely charged with illegal possession of firearms and murder, but there was no mention of his sentencing or status for several years. He was later released from prison and resumed organized crime activities. 

Citizen journalists in Tamaulipas released a picture of him a few years ago and cited him as the Matamoros plaza boss. This information has not been confirmed by law enforcement, but authorities did list him as a high-ranking cartel boss in Matamoros. The latest picture of him was released by security forces after cartel members went on a killing spree and killed at least 15 civilians in Reynosa in June 2021. Given his old ties to Tony Tormenta, he is likely a close associate of the Cardenas clan in Matamoros.

Sources: Alberto Viveros, Reynosa Codigo Rojo, La Opinion, La Otra ok Opinion, ADN40 Video Segment, Borderland Beat Archives Post 1, Post 2; La Jornada; La Jornada 2; Tracey Eaton Journalist

Axel Alfredo is one of the sons of El Contador, the previous leader of the Matamoros faction. After the arrest of the leader of a group, control over a cartel group is sometimes passed to the sibling or children of the former leader, much like a royal title.  

Axel allegedly works closely with his brother, Alan Cardenas, another son of Contador.

There are social media rumors that Axel got into a bar fight in Matamoros in October 2022 which led to him kidnapping five men. Among the five was allegedly his cousin, Enrique Homero Cardenas Salinas, alias “El Kike”.

The rumor alleges that Axel had three of the men killed but he eventually released his cousin Kike, along with another man.There is no evidence to support this version of events, however.

In June 2022, there was an alleged run in between law enforcement and Axel’s men, possibly including Axel himself. In the end, it resulted in a man named Victor Hugo Tellez Candon, alias “El Chaparro”, being arrested. El Chaparro is alleged to be Axel’s head of personal security Later rumors claimed that the run-in was really an attempt by La Kena to get rid of Axel, and the cops involved were on Kena’s payroll. 

Sources: Borderland Beat Archives Article 1, Article 2; Valor por Tamaulipeco Post 1 , Post 2, Post 3

Juan Gabriel Montes Sermeño, known as “El Sierra” and “Gaby Sierra” is originally from Matamoros. It appears he originally worked under Juan Carlos de la Cruz Reyna, alias “El JC”, regional leader of the CDG in southern Tamaulipas. As part of a reorganization of the cartel in 2006, “Gaby Sierra” and his brother, Emilio Montes Sermeño, alias “El Flaco Sierra”, became part of a cell of Jorge Eduardo Costilla, alias “El Coss”.

Following the August 2007 arrest of “El JC”, “Gaby Sierra” took his place as leader in southern Tamaulipas and gained significant power and wealth in the region up until his arrest by Semar before dawn on September 12, 2012 in Guadalajara, Jalisco. Javier Garza Medrano, alias “El 14” then took the place of “Gaby Sierra’, who allegedly exerted control from prison.

“El 14” would go on to be arrested in Taxco, Guerrero on February 23, 2014, which would trigger conflicts in CDG Sur between associates of “El 14” and forces aligned with “Flaco Sierra”, who presented himself as the heir to his brother’s former position.

On May 16, 2017 “Gaby Sierra” was set to be released from the Cefereso in Ocampo, Guanajuato but officials immediately arrested him on kidnapping charges, for which he was transferred to Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas.

Eventually “Gaby Sierra” was quietly released from prison and is alleged to be residing in Matamoros and is said to be trying to regain power.

Sources: Contralinea, El Economista, La Opinion de Altamira, Periodico al Dia

Victor Manuel Vazquez Mireles is a high-ranking Gulf Cartel member who has been active in the organization since the late 1990s. He is commonly referred to by his alias “Meme Loco” (“Meme” is a nickname for people named Manuel, and “Loco” stands for Crazy).

Details of his early criminal career are unknown; sources consulted by Borderland Beat confirmed that Meme Loco was a long-time friend of Gulf Cartel kingpin Osiel Cardenas Guillen, and that Meme Loco joined his drug ring circa 1996 when Osiel returned to Matamoros after working as a police officer in Miguel Aleman. This return, although underrepresented by most accounts, would be a pivotal year for the Gulf Cartel because Osiel consolidated a group of military members and ex-police officers in Matamoros that would later become the core circle for the creation of Los Zetas and Los Metros, respectively.

In January 1999, the Federal Highway Police (PFC) arrested Meme Loco in Rio Bravo for having 900 kg (2,000 lbs) of marijuana in his possession. He was imprisoned in a low-security prison in Reynosa but was able to escape in less than a month. While being transported from prison to court for a hearing, he was freed from custody by Gulf Cartel gunmen. It was clear from this incident that Meme Loco was associated with high-ranking cartel members, but few knew who he was working for.

He was also one of the men responsible for helping Osiel Cardenas Guillen kill Angel Salvador Gomez Herrera (“El Chava”) in May 1999. El Chava was one of the top cartel bosses in Matamoros in the mid-1990s and a former associate of Juan Garcia Abrego, Sergio Garza Torres (“Checo Gómez”, often confused as Sergio Gomez), and Rafael Olvera Lopez (“El Rafles”). After El Chava’s death, Osiel Cardenas became the undisputed leader of the Gulf Cartel and consolidated his reign in Matamoros. Meme Loco remained as one of his bodyguards and main confidants.

He rose to law enforcement attention in November 1999 when he was involved in a standoff with two US federal agents who were investigating the cartel in Matamoros. Although the agents and an informant returned to the US unharmed, the US government launched a massive manhunt for Osiel and a dozen of his henchmen involved, including Meme Loco. Most of the gunmen involved in the incident have been arrested and/or killed while others have disappeared from public view.

Meme Loco was arrested in March 2003 in Veracruz and sentenced to 7.5 years in prison in 2006. His conviction was later overturned but he remained behind bars for nearly a decade without sentencing.

In 2019, Borderland Beat consulted the Mexican government via a transparency request and received confirmation that Meme Loco had been released. The following year, Mexican news outlets reported that he had resumed his organized crime activities. It is unclear what role Meme Loco has in the present-day Gulf Cartel. But we can infer that he is active in Matamoros and/or is close to the Cardenas clan.

Sources: Contralinea, Valor por Tamaulipeco Post 1, Post 2, Post 3, Post 4, Borderland Beat, Wikipedia Article Written by Borderland Beat’s Morogris, Noticias Rogera Lonso; BB Government Inquiry

Link to slides

Link to full size map

Further Reading

Catch up on some recent Gulf Cartel – Matamoros faction happenings 

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