Cartel leader arrested

Sergio Maldonado, the alleged leader of a Gulf Cartel cell, and six others were apprehended in Laredo as a result of “Operation Puma.”His name appeared in a lengthy and heavily censored indictment partially unsealed Friday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Diana Saldaña.

“The tentacles of this drug trafficking enterprise spanned both national and international territories,” said James L. Capra, special agent in charge of the Dallas Field Division Office. “As criminal members were identified, the scope and magnitude of this organization’s destructive powers became apparent.

“We knew that the mission to dismantle this criminal enterprise would be immense and tedious but one that we could accomplish with fostered law-enforcement partnerships both in our own backyard and abroad,” Capra said in a statement.

The unsealed names included seven defendants, Maldonado of McKinney included, who were picked up on Thursday. They were accused of conspiracy, drug trafficking and money laundering charges. According to DEA officials, Maldonado leads a Gulf Cartel cell based in North Texas.

Adrian Serna, Juan Roman Garcia Jr., Sylvia Herrera, aka “La Prima,” Jose Ivan Contreras and Dagoberto Maldonado Jr., all of Laredo, were arrested.

Others indicted were Alejo Salazar and Juan Barrera, of Falcon Heights.

The indictment culminates a two-and-a-half-year, DEA-led investigation involving more than 20 local, state and federal agencies.

It pulled in more than 20 tons of cocaine and marijuana, and more than $7 million in cash and drug-related assets belonging to an unnamed international Mexican-based drug-trafficking and money-laundering organization.

“Operation Puma,” named after Carlos “El Puma,” Landin-Martinez, a notorious former Mexican police officer, targeted the multi-million dollar criminal organization. The DEA claims it is responsible for smuggling thousands of kilograms of cocaine and multi-ton quantities of marijuana across the U.S.-Mexico border and laundering the proceeds to Mexico.

International, federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies worked across the southwest border during the investigation. They made arrests in Laredo, McAllen, San Antonio and Dallas. The bulk of the arrests, 27 of 32, were made in the Southern District of Texas, officials said.

“Operation Puma” raked in 2.8 tons of cocaine, 17.5 tons of marijuana, and $5.5 million in U.S. currency, according to DEA agents. Hundreds of thousands in cash, obtained through drug trafficking, and other property obtained through drug trafficking proceeds were recovered.

DEA special agents said Landin-Martinez and others used various smuggling and concealment methods.

Landin-Martinez is accused of acting as the “gatekeeper,” collecting tolls from those smuggling large quantities of contraband across a cross-border area known as “Reynosa Plaza.” He was arrested in McAllen on July 14, after an off-duty DEA Special Agent spotted him shopping for watermelons at a grocery store.

Another key player in the drug trafficking enterprise was Sergio Maldonado, the suspected cartel leader. Authorities found links to Laredo and the Nuevo Laredo region and Maldonado.

According to the indictment, Sergio Maldonado and Herrera, along with Alejo Salazar and several other unnamed suspects, possessed with intent to distribute 1,000 kilos or more of marijuana from Aug. 1999 to Jan. 24, 2004, and again on Nov. 24, 2003, using various means. Sergio Maldonado and Herrera also allegedly “conspired” to launder millions in drug proceeds destined for Mexico.

The indictment states the two transported bulk quantities of marijuana, using leased warehouses, homes and bucket utility vehicles to conceal, store and load the drugs.

Herrera allegedly leased a warehouse in Laredo on Texas 359 to be used for “JARO trucking” in August 1999 and also purchased a 1994 GMC bucket utility truck for $22,613 on or about Sept. 9, 1999, to aid in the illegal activity. Dagoberto Maldonado Jr., allegedly concealed more than $1 million in drug proceeds at his residence in Laredo, and at his home in the 100 block of Beltran, on April 4, 2002, according to unsealed documents.

The criminal activity extended to the Rio Grande Valley and Dallas, authorities said.

The indictment states Sergio Maldonado traveled often to conduct his business and was linked to a narcotics stash house in Garland, on or about Sept. 2003.

The indicted individuals will have to forfeit millions of dollars worth of property and assets obtained through criminal means.

More of the indictment will be unsealed later.

The suspects are currently in jail and are being held without bond. They are scheduled to appear in court for their detention hearings on Aug. 22 at 11 a.m. before Judge Adriana Arce-Flores.