Author’s Note: What began as a straightforward article about the current state of affairs and future prospects for the Cártel del Golfo Matamoros faction snowballed as writing background information expanded the scope of the article beyond the initial plan. In an effort to better serve the readers a multi-part series of articles has been decided upon.

The Overlooked Plaza 

The easternmost city in Mexico along the United States border, Heroica Matamoros (H. Matamoros or simply Matamoros for short) seems unremarkable; the third largest border city in the state of Tamaulipas, behind Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa, fourth along the Texas border once Ciudad Juárez is thrown in the mix, sixth along the border as a whole, well behind Tijuana and Mexicali. Yet this city of 542,000 people, comparable in size to Sacramento, California, the 34th largest city in the United States, has shaped the course of cartel history in Mexico and is poised to continue to do so, even as it is now often overlooked.

The Birth of a Cartel 

While opium networks dotted the Mexico/United States border as far back as the 1800s, Matamoros is often considered the pioneer of Mexican drug cartels. During the Prohibition era (1920-1933), when alcohol was outlawed throughout the United States, Juan Nepomuceno Guerra Cárdenas began smuggling whisky into Texas. Thereafter, he expanded his criminal network into other illegal goods in what became known as the Cártel de Matamoros (Matamoros Cartel).

In the mid-1970s he retired from his life of crime, handing over control of the organization to his nephew Juan García Abrego, who oversaw what was then primarily a marijuana smuggling business. The Cártel de Matamoros evolved into the Cártel del Golfo (CDG, Gulf Cartel) in the 1980s, expanding operations through the state of Tamaulipas and neighboring Nuevo León, as Juan García Abrego took advantage of the waning power of the Guadalajara Cartel to forge direct ties to the Cali Cartel in Columbia, shifting his criminal empire into cocaine trafficking.

It was alleged that, during the 1988 to 1994 presidency of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the CDG received protection from the government and, in fact, it was said that the president’s brother, Raúl Salinas, frequented parties thrown by Juan García Abrego. While the CDG under the leadership of Juan García Abrego was in the spotlight, a criminal cell that would change the face of Mexico, operated in the shadows.

The Cárdenas Guillén Family 

Much has been reported about the Cárdenas Guillén brothers, yet to this day there is a level of uncertainty in some details. Four brothers, all children of Manuela Guillén Mancilla, are well known and documented: Mario, born in May 1958, Antonio Ezequiel, born in March 1962, Homero Enrique, born in March 1966, and Osiel, born in May 1967. Their father, it would seem, was Enrique Cárdenas Gracia, who was listed on the birth certificate of Homero.

Another brother, named Agustín Cárdenas Guillén, with an unknown birthdate, has been infrequently reported over the years. Based upon the information known about his son, it is uncertain but likely that he was older than the publicly known brothers. Furthermore, it is not known if he is alive, although it has been speculated that he died prior to his brothers coming to prominence. 

Additional mysteries were uncovered through the work of ComputerJA on the Borderland Beat forum, which is now inaccessible, although copies of some posts have been recently rediscovered. Enrique Cárdenas Gracia is not thought to be the biological father of the Cárdenas Guillén brothers or, at the very least, not all of them. Instead, according to some sources, he was their uncle and the actual father has not been revealed, although another individual, Rafael Cárdenas Martínez, was listed on the birth certificate of Mario. 

Furthermore, ComputerJA confirmed the existence of a sixth Cárdenas Guillén brother, Rafael, who had been theorized previously based upon circumstantial evidence, and that he was born in December 1950, making him the oldest brother, although his birth certificate had been erased from the government database.

Brothers in Crime 

The early days of the Cárdenas Guillén brothers was hardly noteworthy; Osiel used to wash law enforcement trucks in Matamoros, which lead to his nickname “El Costroso” (crusty) for always being dirty, along with Antonio, whom it appears he was always closest to. At some point thereafter Mario helped Osiel start a mechanic shop.

In all likelihood the mechanic shop was just a front for their true business; Mario had started a minor drug organization, with Antonio handling cocaine purchases, quite possibly from members of the CDG, Osiel handling retail drug sales, and Homero handling small scale trafficking into the United States.

Eventually it reached the attention of authorities; Mario was arrested in 1995 and imprisoned in Matamoros on organized crime and drug trafficking charges and sometime thereafter Osiel Cárdenas Guillén joined the CDG.

Becoming “El Patrón” 

In January 1996, the reign of Juan García Abrego ended; he was arrested by the Mexican army and extradited to the United States the following year, plunging the CDG in a period of instability as a number of leaders came and went.

Eventually the CDG settled under the leadership of a former lieutenant of Juan García Abrego, Angel Salvador “El Chava” Gómez Herrera. Osiel Cárdenas Guillén was, or became, a close friend of “El Chava” Gómez during his time as leader of the CDG, to the point they were considered “compadres”. In that period of time Osiel is said to have become an important part of the CDG, with some reports indicating he was operations leader or, possibly, sharing leadership with “El Chava” Gómez .

Despite their friendship, things changed dramatically; in July 1999 “El Chava” Gómez was killed. From the beginning it was alleged that Osiel had ordered the killing in order to seize control of the CDG. It was because of this Osiel earned the nickname “El Mata Amigos” (The Friend Killer), and, as leader of the CDG, “El Patrón” (The Boss). 

The Glory Days

With leadership secured by Osiel, the other Cárdenas Guillén brothers became important members of the CDG, in particular the most publicly known Antonio Ezequiel, who went by the nickname “Tony Tormenta”, Homero, who likely operated discretely from the very beginning, and Mario, who reportedly organized drug shipments from his prison cell in Matamoros up until his actions were discovered in 2003 and he was reassigned to a prison in Jalisco.  

Under the leadership of Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, the CDG reached the peak of its power, with multiple operational groups, the most famous being Los Zetas, which was made of military defectors turned bodyguards/elite task force. There are numerous notable individuals and events from this era, well beyond the scope of this article. 

What should be noted is that Osiel Cárdenas Guillén was arrested in March 2003, yet he continued to lead the CDG and give orders from behind bars. The CDG continued to grow and expand; it was reported to have operated in 21 of the 32 states that make up Mexico at its peak. All that changed in January 2007; Osiel was extradited to the United States. 

Stormy Days

With Osiel no longer in the picture, leadership passed to his brother “Tony Tormenta”, who directed the cartel in conjunction with Jorge Eduardo “El Coss” Costilla Sánchez, a prominent operator in the CDG who had been a close associate of Osiel. Sometime in 2007 the imprisoned brother Mario, nicknamed “M-1” and “El Gordo”, was quietly released from prison and discreetly joined the CDG. 

A few months into the leadership of “Tony Tormenta”, Los Zetas held a meeting of its high ranking members and voted to become autonomous from the CDG. Shortly thereafter they negotiated a power sharing agreement, with their leader Heriberto “El Lazca” Lazcano Lazcano, joining “Tony Tormenta” and “El Coss” to oversee the CDG-Zeta alliance, an arrangement that would last less than 3 years. 

Chewing the Fat

While it is generally regarded that  “M-1”, also known as “El Gordo”, took the place of his “Tony Tormenta” as leader of the CDG alongside “El Coss”, a nephew, Rafael “El Junior” Cárdenas Vela, son of the mysterious aforementioned Rafael Cárdenas Guillén, became increasingly prominent in this timeframe. Amidst rumors that “El Coss” had given up the location of “Tony Tormenta” to authorities in order to solidify power, “El Junior” Cárdenas acted on his own accord, resulting in a number of conflicts with individuals directly linked to “El Coss” up until his arrest in October 2011.

A month before the arrest of “El Junior” Cárdenas, the leader of a group within the CDG known as Los Metros, Samuel “El Metro 3” Flores Borrego, was killed. Los Metros, which controlled Reynosa, Tamaulipas and cities to the west, had borne the brunt of the war with Los Zetas since the split and the death of “El Metro 3”, allegedly at the hands of fellow CDG member Juan Reyes “R1” Mejía González, was met with deep suspicion. 
With tensions started by “El Junior” Cárdenas under the surface, the rest of the CDG continued under the leadership of “M-1” and “El Coss” for nearly a year. In September 2012 “M-1” was arrested and 8 days later “El Coss” too was arrested. It was then that leadership quietly passed to the final brother, Homero “El Majadero” Cárdenas Guillén, also known as “El Orejón”.

The Silent Fool

While “El Majadero” led the core of CDG in Matamoros, plazas in the southern part of Tamaulipas, which had been more directly linked to “El Coss” than the Cárdenas Guillén family in recent years, began operating independently, forming the CDG del Sur (Gulf Cartel of the South) faction. Nevertheless, open hostilities between the CDG of Matamoros and CDG del Sur never occurred and, in fact, they would proceed to work together in an alliance of sorts. 

In November 2013, “El Orejón” was allegedly hospitalized and it was unclear if he ever fully recovered; he died of a heart attack in March 2014, leaving the CDG without a Cárdenas Guillén brother to lead it for the first time in fourteen years. 

(To be continued…)