- Gulf cartel leader Jose Alfredo Cardenas was arrested in an early-morning raid on Monday.
- But a judge said on Wednesday that the arrest was illegal and ordered Cardenas be released.
- He is only the latest cartel figure to be released because of the legal issues in the case against him.
Just days after suspected Gulf cartel leader Jose Alfredo Cardenas was arrested in a predawn raid, a judge in Mexico has ruled that his detention was illegal and released him.
Cardenas, nicknamed “the nephew” and “the accountant,” became a high-level member of the Gulf cartel after Osiel Cardenas Guillen, his uncle and former cartel leader, was arrested in 2003. The US Drug Enforcement Administration has said the younger Cardenas is a main figure in a cartel that has seen “rapid turnover in leadership.”
Cardenas is believed to lead factions of the Gulf cartel in Tamaulipas state. The Mexican navy said on the day of his arrest that he was presumably “the leader of a criminal organization in the region.”
The Mexican navy said on Monday that its personnel, responding to a citizen complaint, arrived in the area of a house where Cardenas was located, at which point they observed a group of armed men, suspected of being members of an organized-crime group, flee the scene. One person was detained at the scene, along with a military-grade weapon and drugs.
Mexican prosecutors offered a slightly different version of events on Wednesday. While asking a judge to uphold the arrest, prosecutors said in court that Cardenas was detained after marines stopped a Chevy Tahoe driving at high speeds in Matamoros around 1:40 a.m. on Monday. Marines saw two illegal weapons in the passenger seat and then searched the car, finding more weapons and drugs.
Cardenas’ defense team, however, presented security-camera videos from his house in the San Francisco neighborhood of Matamoros, which showed marines arriving, disconnecting the cameras, and entering and then exiting with Cardenas in custody. The footage also showed marines removing Cardenas’ vehicle from where it was parked on the property.
Federal prosecutors argued that the video footage could have been edited, but a federal judge found due process had been violated, ruling that the arrest was illegal and ordering Cardenas’ release.
Federal authorities confirmed to Reforma that, as there were no judicial mandates or pending extradition requests, Cardenas was released after midday on Wednesday, leaving the Federal Penal Justice Center in Almoloya de Juarez, Mexico state, located near Altiplano federal prison, which has held other high-profile cartel figures, including former Sinaloa chief Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and former Zetas cartel leader Miguel Angel Treviño.
It was not immediately clear what prompted Cardenas’ arrest, which was followed hours later by reports of gun battles and violence in several parts of Matamoros.
Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a George Mason University professor and author “Los Zetas Inc.,” about the cartel of the same name, told Business Insider on Tuesday that the security situation in Matamoros had calmed in recent months and suggested Cardenas’ arrest had disrupted some kind of pact that had been established in the area.
Cardenas’ present whereabouts are not known, but it is not the first time a cartel figure has been released from custody based on legal or judicial technicalities.
Rafael Caro Quintero — a leader of the powerful Guadalajara cartel, which spawned the Sinaloa cartel and others — was suddenly released in 2013, after serving 28 years of a 40-year sentence for his involvement in the 1985 kidnapping and killing of DEA agent Enrique Camarena, due to jurisdictional issues in the case.
In 2016, Caro Quintero said he was no longer involved in the drug trade, though reports implicated him in the dispute over leadership of the Sinaloa cartel after Guzman’s capture in early 2016.
In August 2017, Sergio Kurt, a suspected financial operator for the Jalisco Nuevo Generation cartel, was released for a lack of evidence to prosecute him on drug and firearms charges. In December, Erick Valencia, a suspected founder of the CJNG, was quietly released after a judge found due-process violations in his case.
“Cardenas is in the wind and it could be years before they capture him again,” Mike Vigil, former chief of international operations for the DEA, told Business Insider. In the meantime, “he will continue to kill countless people and funnel drugs into the US. Mexico’s security forces are more than frustrated with the weak judicial system.”