MEXICO CITY — A top boss of the infamous Gulf Cartel was arrested this weekend in Mexico City for the third time.
Alfredo Cárdenas, alias El Contador or “the Accountant” in English, has been released from jail twice in recent years on questionable technicalities.
His detention is one of the highest-profile captures for President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration. Whether Cárdenas will remain in prison is yet to be seen.
Cárdenas allegedly ran a prominent faction of the Gulf Cartel in the northeastern border state of Tamaulipas. He is the nephew of the notorious former Gulf Cartel boss Osiel Cárdenas, who is currently incarcerated in a U.S. prison.
El Contador was first arrested in 2018 in Matamoros but was quickly released a couple of days later when his lawyers successfully appealed to judges that the authorities lied about the circumstances of his arrest. He was arrested a second time in 2019 on kidnapping charges and spent more than a year in prison before being released again on a technicality.
In his latest detention, Mexican federal authorities have linked Cárdenas to the murders of 15 people in the border city of Reynosa in June 2021. Authorities alleged he was arrested with a handgun and 600 packages of methamphetamine.
He allegedly runs a faction of the Gulf Cartel known both as Los Ciclones (Cyclones) and Los Escorpiones (Scorpions) that operate out of the border city of Matamoros, just south of Brownsville, Texas. Matamoros has long been the bastion of the Cárdenas family and their factions of the Gulf Cartel. The city and surrounding border areas are some of the most lucrative drug trafficking and human smuggling markets in Mexico.
The Gulf Cartel is one of the oldest criminal organizations in Mexico with roots tracing back to the prohibition era and alcohol smuggling in the 1920s. After a power struggle in the mid-90s, Osiel Cárdenas (El Contador’s uncle) rose to the top of the cartel when he allegedly conspired to have his best friend murdered. The double-crossing earned him the nickname El Mata Amigos, or The Friend Killer.
Osiel Cárdenas’ reign shaped much of the modern drug war in Tamaulipas, which remains one of the most lawless and dangerous areas of Mexico. He recruited a group of Mexican military deserters to form his own personal armed wing of the Gulf Cartel known as the Zetas.
After he was arrested in March 2003 by the Mexican military, Osiel allegedly still ran the Zetas from prison, but the group began operating more and more independently causing internal strife within the Gulf Cartel. When Mexico extradited Osiel to the U.S. in 2007, the Zetas split from the group and the Gulf Cartel continued to fracture as top lieutenants vied to be the boss of the region.
Osiel’s older brother, Antonio, aka Tony Tormenta, controlled a group loyal to the Cárdenas family that fought with other capos and the breakaway Zetas. The wars in northeastern Mexico between Tony Tormenta’s Gulf Cartel faction, other Gulf Cartel splinter groups, the Zetas, and opportunistic out-of-state groups like Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s Sinaloa Cartel led to one of the bloodiest periods in modern Mexican history.
Tony Tormenta’s period of control didn’t last long. He was gunned down by the Mexican armed forces in Matamoros during an eight-hour-long firefight that left the city paralyzed in November 2010. Tony Tormenta’s death led to the even briefer tenure of Rafael Cárdenas, alias El Junior, Alfredo Cárdenas’s cousin, and nephew of El Mata Amigos and Tony Tormenta. El Junior was arrested in 2011 while in Texas, and reportedly became a U.S. government informant to reduce his sentence, which further inflamed tensions between Cárdenas loyalists and Gulf Cartel splinter groups.
A third Cárdenas brother, Mario, aka El Gordo, then allegedly took a prominent place in the cartel until his arrest in September 2012. He was followed by a fourth brother, Homero, who reportedly died from a heart attack related to a surgery in 2014. After the arrests and deaths of his four uncles and cousin, El Contador rose to power and controlled one of the largest Gulf Cartel factions based principally in Matamoros.
With the arrest of El Contador, another Cardenas is potentially facing serious prison time. But with his history of outwitting the Mexican justice system, he may be on the streets again soon.