A former high-ranking member of the Mexican Los Zetas cartel has pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced on Sept. 21.
Jose Maria Guizar-Valencia, 43, of Tulare, California, pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to import tons of cocaine into the United States, officials said.
He remains in custody and is due to be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Diana Saldana at a later date.
The dual U.S.-Mexican citizen could face life in prison and a fine of up to $10 million if found guilty.
Mr. Guizar-Valencia is considered one of the last numbered Los Zetas and was a "regional leader" in charge of the Guatemala/Central America region, according to the DOJ.
Daniel C. Comeaux, Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Houston sector, said Mr. Guizar-Valencia's guilty plea serves as "another example of our success in the fight against Mexican drug cartels operating in the United States and exemplifies the commitment of the DEA and our law enforcement partners to battle against global drug trafficking organizations."
Also known by his aliases "Charly," "Chema," "Carlitos," "Z-43," and "43," Mr. Guizar-Valencia was arrested in 2018 in Mexico City during a joint operation between law enforcement officials and the military.
He had been on the run for many years prior to his arrest and the DOJ had, at one point, offered a $5 million reward for his arrest.
Following his apprehension, Mr. Guizar-Valencia waived extradition.
According to the State Department, the Los Zetas Cartel evolved from a small group of deserters from the Mexican Special Forces who were hired by the Gulf Cartel as a security force.
They later went on to become one of the most powerful and violent criminal organizations in Mexico; responsible for trafficking cocaine and other drugs including methamphetamine for the Gulf Cartel into the United States.
Cartel Ruthlessly Killed CiviliansMr. Guizar-Valencia is believed to have commanded his own faction of Los Zetas in the Southern region of Mexico following the death of its former leader, Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, in 2012, and the arrest of his replacement, Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, in 2013.
Under his control, the drug cartel committed an untold number of murders, ruthlessly killing Guatemalan civilians during its takeover of the Guatemalan border region with Mexico. The group also expanded their control over the importation of drugs from countries including Guatemala, Honduras, and Colombia into Mexico and then into the United States.
The cartel is believed to have made millions of dollars in U.S. currency from the sale of drugs such as cocaine in America.
Mr. Guizar-Valencia has been charged in separate drug trafficking indictments in the Eastern District of Texas, the Southern District of Texas, and the Eastern District of Virginia.
"Today the cartels were put on notice," said U.S. Attorney Alamdar S. Hamdani. "After a long and hard fought battle, we brought another ruthless cartel leader to justice. Jose Maria Guizar-Valencia may have thought he was untouchable, but now he feels the reach, power, and persistence of the Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). He once led the drug activity in a large swath of Central America. Those days are over, and the residents of the Southern District of Texas are now safer."
Earlier this year, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), John Kennedy (R-La.), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) introduced legislation that would designate the Los Zetas Cartel, along with a string of others including the Sinaloa, Gulf, Juarez Cartel, and Tijuana Cartels, as foreign terrorist organizations.
The foreign terrorist designation would grant law enforcement agencies and prosecutors greater powers to freeze the assets of those organizations, deny members entry into the United States, and allow for tougher punishment of members and supporters.