A rare glimpse of Juan García Abrego: from vehicle thief to drug lord

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A rare glimpse of Juan García Abrego: from vehicle thief to drug lord

Note: I recovered a November 1978 federal indictment issued against Juan García Abrego, the former leader of the Gulf Cartel. This indictment details García Abrego’s activities as a small-time vehicle thief before his rise to fame. The indictment was retrieved from print archives of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas in Brownsville in February 2020 and was not available online. The indictment is linked here.

From the late 1980s until his arrest in 1996, the name of the legendary drug kingpin Juan García Abrego instilled fear. As the first foreigner on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list, García Abrego attracted international attention for his drug crimes and was branded by authorities as the source of violence in northern Mexico and South Texas. However, little is known of his early life when he was a car thief trying to make a name for himself in Brownsville in the 1970s. In this report, Borderland Beat will share a rare glimpse of how García Abrego came of age.

Indictment details

According to the indictment issued on 8 November 1978, sometime between 2 September and 11 October 1978, García Abrego and seventeen other individuals unlawfully transported stolen vehicles from the U.S. into Mexico. García Abrego was charged with knowingly transporting stolen vehicles using foreign commerce. In the whole scheme, six truck tractors, three truck trailers, and 44,833 lb (20,336 kg) of stainless steel coils and skids were stolen from San Antonio, Corpus Christi and Houston. All of these goods were transported to Brownsville, where most were then smuggled and sold in Mexico.

Below are the 18 individuals who were charged in the indictment:

1. Donald Baxter
2. John Kenneth Odlozelik
3. Jack E. Shipman
4. David Lee Kuehn
5. George Rendon
6. Rogelio Salinas-Pena ("Quino" or "Tito")
7. Jesus Maria Gonzalez ("Chuey" or "Chema")
8. Fred B. Rendon, Jr.
9. Saul Salinas
10. Oscar Salinas
11. Thomas Scott Bates ("Slick")
12. Richard Cook
13. Gregg Perkins
14. Gregory Nathan Fee
15. Manuel Salinas
16. Lictor Hazael Marroquin-Garcia
17. Juan García Abrego ("La Muñeca")
18. Saul Hernandez-Rivera

Though not mentioned in the indictment, the vehicle theft industry along the South Texas and Tamaulipas border was controlled by Casimiro Espinosa Campos ("El Cacho"), a Matamoros-based kingpin. The police stated that El Cacho’s ran his business like a barter economy; instead using money as a medium of exchange, El Cacho often used the stolen vehicles as a commodity and exchanged them for cocaine and marijuana, which were then smuggled by his organization into the U.S. Though involved in the drug trade prior to García Abrego,  El Cacho’s operations were minimal compared to his years later..

El Cacho’s business model was nonetheless fruitful. The son of a tortilla factory worker, El Cacho quickly became a millionaire and led a powerful faction in Matamoros. This fact is important because it shows us that El Cacho, who died in 1984 following an attack reportedly masterminded by García Abrego himself, was involved in the drug trade long before him. It is possible that García Abrego worked under El Cacho before working under his relative Juan N. Guerra, Matamoros’ former crime boss.

Criminal friendships

The best friend of García Abrego was Lictor Hazael Marroquin-García, who was also indicted with him in 1978. "Lico", as he was commonly known in Matamoros, met García Abrego when they played baseball as kids. Though usually quiet and reserved with others, García Abrego was very close to Marroquín-García and spoke to him about personal matters.

The indictment details how both of them worked very closely stealing vehicles. On or around 10 September 1978, U.S. authorities stated that Marroquín-García met with García Abrego and three others in Brownsville to coordinate the transfer of a stolen 1977 Kenworth Truck Tractor from Houston. Marroquín-García drove the vehicle to Matamoros, where it was later resold. On or around 11 October 1978, another 1977 Kenworth Truck Tractor and a flat-bed trailer were stolen in San Antonio. The indictment stated that Marroquín-García met with García Abrego and three others to discuss arrangements that day. In the indictment, García Abrego was also referred to by his alias "La Muñeca" (The Doll). Some say he got this nickname for his baby face and/or for being a sharp dresser.

Unaware of the charges he faced in the U.S., Marroquín-García was arrested as he crossed the international border in October 1978. The following year, Marroquín García was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. However, his conviction included an execution of sentence suspended (ESS), which cancelled his sentence just as long as he did not violate any conditions during his probation term. He was given a five-year probation without supervision. Marroquín García was then deported back to Mexico.

U.S. had García Abrego but let him go

García Abrego continued to cross between Mexico and the U.S. for several years, and even owned a house in Brownsville’s country club, while heading the criminal syndicate that would later be known as the Gulf Cartel. In 1984, García Abrego was arrested in Brownsville for the vehicle theft charges. To U.S. authorities, García Abrego was a small-time thief; in Matamoros, however, García Abrego was on the rise. El Cacho was dead and he was working to consolidate the drug empire left behind.

But García Abrego was let go at the urging of prosecutors like U.S. Attorney Robert Guerra. The night of his arrest, he paid a US$5,000 bond and left prison. He later appeared in court, where he pledged he was a legitimate businessman, owned land in Mexico and lived quietly in Brownsville as a U.S. citizen. His lawyer worked a deal that if he kept himself out of trouble for a year, his charges would be dismissed. U.S. District Judge Ricardo Hinojosa allowed García Abrego to travel to Mexico for business purposes and later dropped his charges. However, his drug career fast-tracked after this incident; two weeks later, he attempted to bribe FBI agent Claude de la O with US$100,000. Ironically, García Abrego was nowhere to be found. U.S. authorities were unable to get a hold of him for more than a decade. Ironically, his FBI wanted poster did not include his criminal background in the U.S. since his 1978 auto theft charges were dismissed.

In an interview about a decade later, U.S. Attorney Guerra explained his reasoning for García Abrego’s release. "You're asking, 'Why did we let Jack the Ripper go?' " Guerra said. "Well, we didn't know he was Jack the Ripper at the time." He explained the prosecutors in Brownsville were heavily case-loaded and did not pay attention to García Abrego.

Other indicted individuals

Though some of the 18 individuals indicted faced time in jail, several were killed or never arrested. Among those on the list who stand out is Saul Hernandez-Rivera, a reputed drug trafficker who was killed outside a bar in Matamoros in 1987 along with corrupt policeman Tomás Morlet Borquez. Hernandez-Rivera’s relatives, in an unrelated case that shocked the world in 1989, were convicted of the kidnapping and gruesome cult murder of American student Mark Kilroy in Matamoros.

In 1985, García Abrego’s best friend Marroquín-García died of cirrhosis in Matamoros. Marroquín García's mother stated that García Abrego was deeply saddened by his death and cried "inconsolably" at one of his ranches. García Abrego sent flowers to Marroquín García's grave every year on his death date and on Day of the Dead up until his arrest in 1996. In an interview that year, Marroquín-García’s mother said she recalled García Abrego as a "good boy".

Some who knew the two speculate on what would have been of Marroquín-García had he not died. Perhaps he would have become a top enforcer in García Abrego’s growing drug empire. We will never know.

Sources and footnotes:
* U.S. Federal Indictment (1978)
* Lictor Hazael Marroquin Garcia (Death Certificate)
* Lictor Hazael Marroquin Garcia (Wikipedia page, published February 2020)
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Re: A rare glimpse of Juan García Abrego: from vehicle thief to drug lord

Wow MX great article, your data sources as good as always.
I´ve one question regarding this guy´s uncle, Juan Nepomuceno Guerra: what happened with his restaurant at Matamoros, the Restaurante Piedras Negras? When was it closed?
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Re: A rare glimpse of Juan García Abrego: from vehicle thief to drug lord

Hi redlogarythm, thanks for your comment. Much appreciated.

I don't remember exactly when the restaurant was closed. I did a quick search but couldn't find anything. But I remember visiting a few years after his death. Guerra's family still owns a lot of property in downtown Matamoros.

Here's a picture of the restaurant when it was open. I remember they had really good Cabrito and huevos a la mexicana. A lot of gringos used to go there since it was in a very centric spot (in front of the Teatro la Reforma near the main plaza). Long-time Matamoros residents for the most part used to avoid the place since it was notorious for being a mafioso spot. I never had an issue there or saw anything strange.