Drug Kingpin Turned Informant Sentenced in Secrecy to 25 Years

He was once one of Mexico's most feared drug lords, ruling his cocaine smuggling empire along the Texas border with a violent ferocity aimed at competitors and disloyal employees alike. Now Osiel Cárdenas has become an informant himself, sharing secrets so explosive they've been hidden by a U.S. court from the public at a closed sentencing hearing.

Cárdenas was sentenced to 25 years in prison after pleading guilty to five counts, including drug trafficking, money laundering and the attempted murder and assault of an FBI agent and Drug Enforcement Administration agent. As part of his sentencing in a Houston federal courtroom, the former head of the Gulf Cartel also forfeited $50 million in assets.

As part of his plea agreement, Cárdenas is giving the U.S. government information about his drug operations in Tamaulipas.

Infamous Incident

In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, DEA agent Joe DuBois described in detail a 1999 armed standoff with Cárdenas and his gunmen in Matamoros, a city just across the Rio Grande from Brownsville.

In the incident, Cárdenas wanted the American agents to turn over to him a Mexican informant. Brandishing a gold-plated AK-47, the drug kingpin threatened to kill the agents and the informant before relenting and allowing them to drive off.

After his arrest in Mexico in 2003, Cárdenas was extradited to the U.S. in 2007 along with 14 other major Mexican crime figures. He has been cooperating with federal authorities since then.

For the past two years, attorneys on both sides have engaged in secretive legal wrangling resulting in the sentence handed out in a courtroom empty of everyone but the defendant, attorneys and court personnel.

Rare Secrecy

Legal experts say it's extremely unusual for a judge to bar the public from a sentencing hearing. It's much more common for some documents related to the plea agreement to be sealed in case the documents could harm ongoing criminal investigations.

Criminal law authorities told the New York Times that in those cases, and even in sentencing hearings for terrorists, the public isn't typically barred from the courtroom.

However, in the case of Cárdenas, the judge noted that if the hearing had been public, "the defendant, court personnel, United States marshal personnel, other courthouse personnel and the general public [would] be placed in imminent danger."

Federal Charges

If you or a member of your family has been charged with a federal crime, contact a federal law criminal defense attorney focused on protecting clients in the federal court system.