by Kevin Krause
When Arnoldo Rueda-Medina was arrested in Mexico, his drug cartel attacked the police station where he was being held with grenades and high-powered rifles. They also attacked other government facilities and carried out the revenge killings of 12 federal police officers.
The bodies of the 11 men and one woman were dumped on a mountain road. The officers were bound and blindfolded. They had been tortured. A message scrawled on a piece of cardboard left at the scene said, "Come get another. We're waiting for you."
On Wednesday, a federal judge in Dallas sentenced Rueda-Medina to 43 years in prison. Rueda-Medina, 48, known as "La Minsa," was a high-ranking member of the feared La Familia drug cartel and organized crime syndicate based in the Mexican state of Michoacán.
A Mexican federal police officer who escaped the 2009 bloodbath testified in court on Wednesday, telling U.S. District Judge Ed Kinkeade how the memory of his fallen comrades continues to haunt him.
"They were cowardly assassinated," said the officer, who was not identified for security reasons. "It's something you don't ever recuperate from fully."
The government had asked for life in prison and Rueda-Medina's attorneys wanted 38 years. During the hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney George Leal showed Kinkeade a photo of the bodies of the murdered police officers, which the judge admitted into evidence.
Kinkeade said he has sentenced more than 150 members of the La Familia cartel over the past decade. He said he couldn't hold the defendant responsible for all the organization's crimes. But he noted that Rueda-Medina was the highest-ranking member to come before him.
"You were at the top and you knew lots and lots of what was going on," Kinkeade said.
The judge also ordered him to pay a $5 million fine, noting that it was a "drop in the bucket."
Rueda-Medina was arrested in Mexico in 2009 and indicted in a Dallas federal court in 2010. He was extradited to the U.S. from Mexico in early 2017. He pleaded guilty in Dallas last year to one count of conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute a Schedule II controlled substance and one count of conspiracy to launder monetary instruments.
Rueda-Medina, who reportedly was the cartel's chief of operations, had faced up to life in prison and a $10 million fine for smuggling hundreds of kilograms of methamphetamine into North Texas and storing it in stash houses. Clean-shaven with jet black hair, he looked, in an orange jumpsuit and chains, like any other drug defendant shuffled into court to hear his fate.
Rueda-Medina showed little emotion during the hearing but bowed his head and looked down when the Mexican police officer spoke. The defendant said through an interpreter that he had found God while in custody and was committed to ministering to others behind bars. He said he was a drug addict who felt trapped and unable to leave the cartel due to the consequences he and his family would face.
"I had to either die or be incarcerated," he said. "I am now released from that heavy load."
La Familia originated in the 1980s and initially trafficked in marijuana while billing itself as a champion of the people.
The cartel eventually gained a reputation for savage violence.
When Felipe Calderón was elected as Mexico's president in 2006, La Familia commandos sent him a message in his home state. They walked into a nightclub, fired shots into the ceiling and tossed five human heads onto a crowded dance floor in Michoacan, a southwestern coastal region of Mexico.
The Mexican police officer testified Wednesday that he was helping to transport Rueda-Medina to Mexico City when about 50 La Familia members dressed in police uniforms showed up where his colleagues were staying. His job assignment that day spared his life, he said.
During the ambush, the cartel operatives kidnapped the 12 officers in retaliation for Rueda-Medina's capture.
The police witness, in a dark dress uniform decorated with medals, said his colleagues had been investigating the cartel's operations.
"I'm here today as the voice of my fallen co-workers and their families," he told Kinkeade.
The officer said the dead were "like brothers to me." And he lamented how they were "savagely tortured" and dumped on the side of the road "as if a piece of trash."
The officer said Rueda-Medina's remorse is little consolation for the murdered officers' families, to whom he had to break the news. He said he attended every funeral.
"Because that is an event that will forever mark our lives," he said.
It was at the time the highest single-day death toll for Mexican federal forces. And it signaled a major escalation in Mexico's war against the drug cartels that were devastating the country.
"Thanks to the unrelenting efforts of our United States law enforcement team and the critical assistance and sacrifice of our Mexican counterparts, a notorious drug cartel leader is where he should be --behind bars," said U.S. Attorney Erin Nealy Cox.
'Beyond the pale'
One of the defendant's attorneys, Rafael de la Garza, told Kinkeade he had gotten to know his client as "more as a human being" over the past year and "as the person he has become." He said the former cartel chief is remorseful and has accepted responsibility for his actions.
De la Garza said his client has been kept in isolation since his arrest -- both in Mexico and in the U.S. -- and was subjected to Mexico's form of interrogation. One of his sons is a U.S. citizen who is preparing to attend college here, he said.
Rueda-Medina is "humbled" by what happened, De la Garza said, and wants his children to remain on "the right path."
De la Garza also said his client is now a man of faith who knows "he has a new mission in life" to mentor others.
Rueda-Medina told the judge he was sorry for "all the damage I have done." He said he would like to obtain a college degree and counsel others about the mistakes he made and about the dangers of drugs.
"There is no other path," he said.
Leal, the prosecutor, told the judge that witnesses have said that they had to get Rueda-Medina's permission to kidnap or kill. He said the defendant was in the cartel's "second tier" of leadership whose importance to La Familia was demonstrated by the "all-out offensive" on Mexican federal police officers.
Leal read aloud the names of the murdered officers. And he asked Kinkeade to use his sentence to send a message to others.
Kinkeade said the details of the case are "horrific" and that he thinks about the "countless people" who've been impacted as well as those who lost their lives.
"It's beyond the pale," he said. "I do hold you responsible for the position you held...I don't know if your country is ever going to recover."
Kinkeade gave Rueda-Medina credit for time he has already served behind bars. And he ordered that he be deported when he completes his sentence.
At the end of the hearing, he thanked Leal and Assistant U.S. Attorney Rick Calvert, who've handled many Mexican cartel cases in Dallas.
The Rueda-Medina indictment includes 32 other defendants, some of whom are not named.
The indictment said the conspiracy ran from about September 2008 to October 2009. Rueda-Medina and others "arranged for the acquisition of cocaine and methamphetamine from supply sources" affiliated with the cartel, the indictment said.
Cartel members and their associates conducted surveillance in North Texas to protect their operations. And North Texas served as a "critical distribution point" for La Familia, facilitating drug shipments to varied places across the country from Georgia to Minnesota, authorities said.
Cartel members smuggled the cash proceeds from drug sales into Mexico, hidden in vehicles, or they wired it through Western Union and other companies, according to the indictment.
Rueda-Medina and others used some of the drug money to rent North Texas homes to store the drugs and the money earned from sales, according to the indictment.
Federal authorities in 2010 froze all of Rueda-Medina's assets in the U.S. under the Kingpin Act, which prohibits gang leaders from profiting in this country. The law "blocks all property and interests in property... owned or controlled by significant foreign narcotics traffickers," officials say.
The law also bans U.S. citizens and companies from doing any business with Rueda-Medina.
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