Exclusive photo: Juan N. Guerra, founding member of the Gulf Cartel
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Note: Below is the picture of the notorious Juan Nepomuceno Guerra Cárdenas, a Matamoros crime boss who is accredited for being one of the founding members of what would be later called the Gulf Cartel. This picture is found in local print archives and it is the first time being displayed on the web. I'm sharing a story about him that The Brownsville Herald published in 1996 for those unfamiliar with him. This picture was once found inside Piedras Negras, Guerra's famous restaurant in Matamoros.
A slump-shouldered 80-year-old Juan N. Guerra seems a lifetime away from the Stetson-wearing towering man forever forged into the lore of Mexico's underworld.
Guerra's name has been whispered by at least three generations. He was legendary long before his promising younger cousin, [Juan Garcia Abrego], climbed to the top of what authorities contend is a $20-billion-a-year cocaine empire. Some say Garcia Abrego wouldn't be half the Mafioso authorities say he is, if it weren't for the guiding hand of Guerra.
"If I had done all they say, how could I still be alive?" Guerra asked in Spanish. "I've done nothing. Clean clothes need no soap." Through the blackened glass doors of his Piedras Negras restaurant and bar, there are no men wearing shades, dark suits or gold chains. No gunfire, blood or bodyguards.
The man locals treat like a godfather and call "Don" in the Mexican tradition, wears an aging brown blazer and a white button-down shirt with an assortment of pens, including a Mont Blanc, shoved in the pocket. His custom-made Stetson hangs on a nearby hook. The walls of Piedras Negras are adorned with photographs and paintings of horses, mostly from his ranch El Tlahuachal, a 500-acre spread outside of town.
He sits in a wheelchair, immobilized by a stroke 11 years ago. His left hand is held forever in a loose fist. His words are sometimes quick and slurred. He'll talk to anyone willing to listen, but forget about going to him with prepared questions and a tape recorder. He'll have none of it. And absolutely no photographs.
He knows about the whispers, the stares and the fear people have based on his reputation.
"It's not my fault if they talk quietly and with respect," he said.
He doesn't sit at just any table, but at one made famous at the 1994 trial of two American Express bankers in Brownsville. The inner workings of the Gulf Cartel were spilled by members of the drug underworld during their trial. He sits at this huge round table, which is carved with his initials and a horse's head. The cedar wood table was crafted by a friend 25 years ago and is too heavy to budge with even the heartiest of shoves.
It's the reputed tough-guy table of Matamoros. The table where his famous younger cousin, Juan Garcia Abrego, came of age. A place where legend has it that some of the city's darkest secrets have been discussed.
"Being family is not a crime," said Guerra, who insists he hasn't spoken with "Juanito" since the 1980s when they met at the Brownsville townhouse of Garcia Abrego's father.
"Juanito" will never be able to live in peace, said Guerra, who doubts he will ever again see the man he has known since the day he was born.
"They talk about me now and I haven't done anything," he said. "Can you imagine what they'll say if I go and see him?"
He's at the table every day from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. It's where he starts his day every morning with a glass of water and two glasses of milk. He pours them down with migas or eggs cut with chorizo sausage, ham or bacon. Beer? Only with dinner and just one a day for the man who started his career in 1940 running truck loads of Carta Blanca from Matamoros to Monterrey.
Guerra said he liked the open roads.
"I like to be alone, like the eagle," he said. "When you're alone, you can't be bad company."
Guerra is guarded about discussing Garcia Abrego and is quick to distance himself from the man who was arrested Jan. 15 in Mexico. Garcia Abrego now sits behind bars in Houston facing a slew of cocaine and money laundering charges.
"I can't talk about these things," Guerra said simply. "They are very difficult."
Guerra said his 51-year-old cousin is a Mexican national who should not have been shipped to the United States without an extradition hearing. He insists that Garcia Abrego was born in La Puerta, a ranch outside of Matamoros, and is a Mexican citizen. Garcia Abrego's parents filed papers in Brownsville at the courthouse that made it look like he was born in the United States so he could visit the country at will, he said. Guerra said Garcia Abrego was denied something that is the right of every citizen, the protection of his homeland.
Handing over his cousin was a treasonous act by the Mexican government, he said. It may have been part of some little-known addition to the free-trade agreement, he joked, drawing mild laughter from guests at his table. Some say Guerra once ruled the streets of Matamoros with an iron fist and little patience for anyone who got in the way.
"He was the Al Capone of Matamoros," said a man who didn't want to be identified. "He is used to getting whatever he wants."
Guerra's pull is so strong that in 1953 Miss France, Cristian Martell, danced at his old club, The Matamoros Cafe. Martell was also Miss Universe and would later become the wife of Miguel Aleman, a senator and son of a Mexican president. In 1960, Mexican police were looking for Guerra in connection with the death of Lt. Col. Octavio Villa Coss, the son of Mexico's revolutionary leader, Pancho Villa.
According to news reports at the time, Guerra's bodyguard and chauffeur later confessed to the killing. He said he feared Villa was trying to kill Guerra. About 10 years earlier, Guerra was also wanted in connection with the death of his first wife, who was a traveling performer. The charges were later suspended by Mexican authorities.
Then there's the time in 1987 when two men, former federal security policeman Tomas Morlet and accused drug trafficer Saul Hernandez, were gunned down reportedly as they knocked at the doors of Piedras Negras. His infamy has also sparked several wild, unproven rumors that make him seem the embodiment of all that was bold about the Wild West.
He supposedly once had a Brownsville gynecologist brought across the Rio Grande at gun point to treat a family member. He also supposedly shot a man who was talking too loud at the restaurant, without even getting out of his chair.
For years he was suspected of controlling all the booze and other contraband headed south over the U.S.-Mexican border.The man known as Don Juan denies it all.
"No one has ever died in this restaurant, and I don't want to die here either," he said.
As for lore that he was a bootlegger, he said, "They're talking about Prohibition. How old was I in 1923? They're talking about Al Capone." He speaks in sayings, much like a philosopher of sorts.
"Guns are necessary, but at times they are used by the devil." These days Guerra travels in a green Chevy van with a man he insists is a chauffeur, not a bodyguard. He says he doesn't live in a mansion or castle, just a quiet home in Brownsville and sometimes visits his ranch Tlahuachal, a 20-minute drive outside of Matamoros.
"(Guerra) never stopped being evil," said Oscar Olivares Lopez, who claims to have been a lieutenant for Garcia Abrego and later became a witness for the FBI.
"He killed his wife, and they didn't do anything to him. He killed the son of Pancho Villa, and they didn't do anything to him," said Olivares in a 1991 interview.
Guerra's certainly no stranger to power. In addition to being rich and having a cousin who is the reputed head of a multi-billion dollar cocaine cartel, Guerra has a nephew who was once mayor of Matamoros. His favorite brother, Roberto, wanted to be mayor, but died in an airplane crash in 1977. Although Guerra, his four brothers and three sisters are prosperous, they come from the humble beginnings of campesinos, Guerra said. His father came from Ciudad Mier near Miguel Aleman. His mother fron a ranch in Palo Blanco. He says his father worked seven days a week in the fields and was bald as far back as he can remember.
"Like me," he said rubbing his head, which is ringed by thin strands of gray hair.
He's married to a woman from Tampico and has three sons, Juan, Jose and Marcos, all of whom live in Brownsville. He often stays at Juan's house. For many politicians, tourists and even police from either side of the U.S.-Mexican border, a trip to Matamoros is not complete without visiting Piedras Negras.
A slow and steady stream of visitors make their way to the restaurant and head for Guerra's table as if on a pilgrimage. They come with smiles, kisses and handshakes. They want to know how he's doing. They speak of old times.
Some saw him yesterday. For others, it's been a decade or more since they've come by.
Sitting at the round table, Don Juan is lord of his domain and among his friends. Friends, everyone needs a friend, Guerra said. I've known him all my life, said Guillermo Villarreal, a rancher whose family rented the Matamoros Cafe to Guerra.
Everyone was afraid of him, hut not me, said Villarreal, who described how Guerra would pull him aside and peel off rent money from a wad of bills.
How did a man with a sixth-grade education rise from the cotton fields of Northern Mexico to become a wealthy property owner, head of a trucking line and the famous don of Matamoros?
"Destiny," he says with a slight smile curling over his lips.
Re: Exclusive photo: Juan N. Guerra, founding member of the Gulf Cartel
Thanks! I recently found a 1945 plane ticket from Tampico to Brownsville from a man named Juan N. Guerra. He was 30 years old at that time, meaning he was born circa 1915 (the Guerra in question was born in 18 July 1915, so there's a match). Guerra was married to a woman from Tampico and had a house in Brownsville, so those are two other matches there. Cheers!
Yeah, they did an excellent job matching the actor to Guerro himself. I wouldn’t have known this had it not been for the post/picture. Perfect timing for the post. Right before they dropped the new ssn. Watching ep 3 as I type.