Mexico retakes elusive Gulf cartel boss for third time

Alfredo Cárdenas, aka El Contador or

Alfredo Cárdenas, aka El Contador or “the accountant” in English, was captured this weekend for the third time. Photo by Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office.

MEXICO CITY — A top boss of the infamous Gulf Cartel was arrested this weekend in Mexico City for the third time.

Alfredo Cárdenas, aka El Contador or “the accountant” in English, has been released from prison twice in recent years for dubious technicalities.

His detention is one of the most publicized captures of the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. It remains to be seen whether Cárdenas will remain in prison.

Cárdenas is said to have led a large faction of the Gulf Cartel in the northeastern border state of Tamaulipas. He is the nephew of notorious former Gulf Cartel boss Osiel Cárdenas, who is currently incarcerated in a US prison.

El Contador was first arrested in 2018 in Matamoros but was quickly released days later when his lawyers successfully appealed to judges for authorities to lie about the circumstances of his arrest. He was arrested a second time in 2019 for kidnapping and spent more than a year in prison before being released again on a technicality.

When last detained, Mexican federal authorities linked Cárdenas to the murder of 15 people in the border town of Reynosa in June 2021. Authorities alleged he was arrested with a handgun and 600 packets of methamphetamine.

He is said to lead a faction of the Gulf Cartel known as Los Ciclones (Cyclones) and Los Escorpiones (Scorpions) who operate out of the border town of Matamoros, just south of Brownsville, Texas. Matamoros has long been the stronghold of the Cárdenas family and their Gulf Cartel factions. The city and surrounding border areas are among Mexico’s most lucrative drug and human trafficking markets.

The Gulf Cartel is one of Mexico’s oldest criminal organizations, with its roots dating back to the era of prohibition and bootlegging in the 1920s. After a power struggle in the mid-1990s, Osiel Cárdenas (El Contador’s uncle) rose to the top of the cartel when he allegedly conspired to have his best friend murdered. The double crossover earned him the nickname El Mata Amigos, or The Friend Killer.

The reign of Osiel Cárdenas shaped much of the modern drug war in Tamaulipas, which remains one of the most lawless and dangerous regions in Mexico. He recruited a group of Mexican military deserters to form his own personal Gulf Cartel army wing known as Zetas.

After being arrested in March 2003 by the Mexican military, Osiel reportedly still led the Zetas from prison, but the group began to operate increasingly independently, sparking internal strife within the Gulf Cartel. When Mexico extradited Osiel to the United States in 2007, the Zetas split from the group and the Gulf Cartel continued to fracture as top lieutenants vied for the region’s boss.

Osiel’s older brother Antonio, aka Tony Tormenta, controlled a group loyal to the Cárdenas family that fought with other capos and the Separatist Zetas. Wars in northeastern Mexico between Tony Tormenta’s Gulf Cartel faction, other Gulf Cartel splinter groups, the Zetas, and out-of-state opportunist groups like Joaquín’s Sinaloa Cartel” El Chapo” Guzmán led to one of the bloodiest periods in modern Mexican history.

Tony Tormenta’s period of control did not last long. He was shot dead by Mexican armed forces in Matamoros in an eight-hour firefight that left the city paralyzed in November 2010. The death of Tony Tormenta led to the even shorter tenure of Rafael Cárdenas, aka El Junior , cousin of Alfredo Cárdenas, and nephew of El Mata Amigos and Tony Tormenta. El Junior was arrested in 2011 while in Texas and is believed to have become a US government informant to reduce his sentence, further heightening tensions between Cárdenas loyalists and Gulf Cartel splinter groups.

A third Cárdenas brother, Mario, alias El Gordo, was then believed to have been prominent in the cartel until his arrest in September 2012. He was followed by a fourth brother, Homero, who is believed to have died of a heart attack related to surgery in 2014. After the arrests and deaths of his four uncles and cousins, El Contador rose to power and controlled one of the Gulf Cartel’s largest factions based primarily in Matamoros.

With the arrest of El Contador, another Cardenas is potentially facing a heavy prison sentence. But with his history of outwitting Mexico’s justice system, he could soon be on the streets again.

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