BROWNSVILLE, Texas — When a regional manager for the Mexican Gulf cartel moved his operation to a more lucrative territory on the border, he took along not only his armored trucks and personal army, but also his department heads and a team of accountants.
In the grotesque violence that has enveloped Mexico it's easy to lose sight of the fact that, ultimately, these criminal organizations are complex businesses that rely on careful accounting as much as assault rifles. The structures underlying the most successful criminal organizations are stable in a way that means capturing or killing the man at the top may only be a temporary setback and pinching one revenue stream will only drive a search for others.
Rafael Cardenas Vela, a Gulf cartel member who ran three important "plazas," or territories, testified this week about the organization's structure and operations in such detail that it could compose a short course — Narco 101, perhaps.
When prosecutors asked Cardenas to walk jurors through a decade of moves in the cartel's command and control structure, he turned to a giant organizational chart that would be recognizable to anyone in the corporate world except for spaces at the bottom for those "arrested" and "deceased."
Cardenas explained that in his plaza he had managers in charge of each revenue stream, including marijuana, cocaine and "cuota," or extortion payments demanded of legal and illegal businesses. Each department had an accountant. An additional accountant tracked the "piso," or tax that was charged on any drug loads moving through his territory. Another accountant supervised them all.
"I can't do everything myself," Cardenas said. "That's why we have someone in charge of every department."
That structure means simply removing the head is often not enough.
"You have to keep attacking the command and control elements again and again," said Will Glaspy, who oversees the Drug Enforcement Administration's operations in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, across the border from Gulf cartel territory.
Since Osiel Cardenas Guillen, Rafael Cardenas' uncle, was extradited to the U.S. in 2007, the cases have been building on themselves.
The man who took over for Osiel Cardenas was captured this month. Osiel Cardenas' brother was killed by Mexican marines in 2010. Most recently, a third brother was arrested in Mexico this month. Juan Roberto Rincon-Rincon, the plaza boss convicted Friday in Brownsville, is one of three Gulf cartel plaza bosses arrested in the U.S. last year. And Mexican authorities captured another alleged boss this week.
"It's the government of Mexico that has had such tremendous success targeting the Gulf cartel over the last five or six years," Glaspy said. "They're the ones who have continued to attack and focus on the command and control of the Gulf cartel."
"(The Gulf cartel's) corporate structure doesn't exactly look like a Fortune 500 company, but it's probably not far off," he said.
The structure reflects diversified interests. The cartel is still known primarily as a drug-trafficking organization, but it receives important revenue from smuggling immigrants and its extortion rackets.
The U.S. Border Patrol sector that covers much of the Gulf cartel's territory seized just over 1 million pounds of marijuana in 2011 and apprehended nearly 60,000 illegal immigrants. The cartel receives a cut for every kilogram of drugs and every illegal immigrant that passes through its territory.
Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, chairwoman of the government department at the University of Texas-Brownsville, credits Osiel Cardenas with leading the cartel's structural evolution. She said his nephew's testimony revealed the similarities between today's drug-trafficking organization and a legitimate corporation with transnational networks and diversified interests.
Osiel Cardenas' biggest move was creating the Zetas, former special forces troops, as a new department to handle the cartel's security and enforcement, she said.
"When (Osiel Cardenas) introduced the Zetas he changed the whole panorama of drug trafficking and organized crime in the hemisphere," she said. Their expansion into other criminal enterprises beyond drug trafficking served as a lesson for their longtime patrons and other criminal organizations. The Zetas split from the cartel in 2010 and became an independent criminal organization.
Without the critical smuggling corridors controlled by the Gulf cartel or its supply lines, the Zetas initially couldn't count on drug-trafficking revenue so they diversified to piracy and extortion, Glaspy said.
"It's all about the money, and if they're not making the money from drugs they will seek out other criminal activity to reinforce or find other revenue streams," he said.
The younger Cardenas testified that it cost him about $1 million a month when he ran the Rio Bravo plaza to cover payroll, rent, vehicles and bribes. He had to recruit, train and equip his own gunmen. When they were killed, he continued paying their salaries to their families.
He pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine and marijuana and is cooperating with U.S. authorities in other cartel cases with the hope of receiving a shorter sentence.
Bribes went to every level of law enforcement, the press, members of the military and corrupted U.S. officials, he said.
"In order to have your plaza well, all organized, you have to pay all the police agencies," Cardenas said. Paying off the local police in Rio Bravo alone cost $20,000 per week, he said.
And when the Gulf cartel began going head to head with the Zetas in early 2010, he said, costs rose to the point where they were just breaking even.
Cardenas worked for nearly a decade as a plaza boss. Each of his plazas was within an hour's drive of the Texas border.
"All of the plazas that have river on the border are better," he said. More drugs and immigrants crossing, as well as border businesses such as pharmacies popular with American tourists. "More money."