This article originally appeared in the Friday, May 25 edition of the Progress Times
A federal judge sentenced a former drug cartel scout to five years in prison last week.
U.S. District Judge Randy Crane sentenced Jose Soto, 29, a Mexican citizen who lived in San Antonio, to 63 months in federal prison during a hearing on May 17.
Soto worked for Jose Merced “Chacho” Arechiga, a drug trafficker from Sullivan City. Thanks to a sophisticated surveillance team and help from corrupt cops, the Arechiga drug trafficking organization avoided detection for years.
“The only thing I have to say is that I ask the United States and this court to forgive me,” Soto said, speaking through a translator.
Arechiga moved thousands of pounds of marijuana through western Hidalgo County for Gulf Cartel plaza boss Gumercindo “El Aguila” Gamez-Villarreal, who controlled Diaz Ordaz and rural ranchland south of Starr County.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration started investigating “El Aguila” in February 2009, according to federal court records. With permission from a judge, agents monitored phone calls to identify key players.
The investigation revealed “El Aguila” worked with the Arechiga drug trafficking organization to move marijuana between Diaz Ordaz and Sullivan City.
Smugglers loaded boats with bundles of marijuana, crossed the Rio Grande and hauled the bundles to waiting cars, according to federal court records. Drivers whisked the marijuana to stash houses in Sullivan City and Mission.
Arechiga avoided Border Patrol and local police with a sophisticated surveillance network, which communicated with push-to-talk radios.
Arechiga also bribed Sullivan City police Chief Hernan Guerra, paying him $500 to $1,000 every few weeks, according to federal court records. Guerra provided information about Border Patrol and kept local police away from smuggling routes. He also rigged auto auctions for Arechiga.
Soto wasn’t just a scout. He dated Arechiga’s daughter.
“He was a lookout but, of course, because of his relationship with Arechiga’s daughter he was, in that sense, a more valued member of the team,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Patricia Cook Profit, who prosecuted the case.
When the U.S. Marshals Service started making arrests, though, “El Aguila” slipped away.
“We made several attempts to arrest several people. And by the time we would get there, they would be gone,” said Drug Enforcement Administration Agent A. Marisol Farias, who testified during a February hearing. “Because, somehow, they would hear of it before we would actually be out there.”
The Marshals Service spent years searching for “El Aguila” but never caught him. The Tamaulipas Attorney General’s Office found him dead in August 2016, apparently murdered during a cartel power struggle.
Prosecutors eventually indicted 32 people. The names of 12 defendants remain sealed.
Concerned about leaks, federal agents didn’t enter information about the fugitives in law enforcement databases. That allowed Soto to avoid arrest for nearly eight years.
Soto moved to Georgetown, Texas, where police arrested him for assault and possession of marijuana on Oct. 18, 2014, according to Williamson County jail records.
Apparently unaware of the warrant, the federal government deported him.
When he returned to Texas remains unclear, but Soto had settled in San Antonio by July 2017.
Soto kept in touch with Arechiga’s daughter, which helped the Marshals Service break the case, said Deputy U.S. Marshal Franco Quintanilla, who testified during a February hearing.
The Marshals Service discovered that a car registered to Arechiga’s daughter had been spotted by automatic license plate readers in San Antonio.
Deputy marshals arrested Soto on July 3, 2017, in the parking lot of a San Antonio restaurant — nearly eight years after prosecutors indicted him.
After serving the prison sentence, Soto will be deported.
“If you’re ever found here, now that you have this big drug conviction on your record, you’re going to be arrested, prosecuted in federal court like this (and) be facing very significant time just for coming here,” Crane said during the sentencing hearing. “So please stay in Mexico and resist the temptation to come back.”