A former cartel lawyer who led the Los Zetas Cartel before fleeing Mexico was an exception to the "rule" that top kingpins did not try to hide in the United States. The three men who killed Juan Jesús Guerrero Chapa will be on trial in Texas beginning later this month.
A man who was slain at an upscale suburban Dallas shopping center is identified in federal court documents as the acting leader of a notorious Mexican cartel, a claim that would run counter to the long-held belief that drug kingpins seldom try to hide in the United States.
Juan Jesús Guerrero Chapa moved into a million-dollar home in Southlake, Texas, in 2011, two years before he was fatally shot by three men who prosecutors say had been stalking him for months.
According to a recent court filing submitted by the lawyers for Jesús Gerardo Ledezma Cepeda -- one of three suspects slated to stand trial for Chapa's killing -- Guerrero Chapa became the interim head of the Gulf Cartel -- one of Mexico's most violent drug-trafficking rings -- following the arrest of predecessor Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, who was extradited to the United States in 2007 and later sentenced to 25 years in prison.
As head of the Gulf Cartel, "(Guerrero) Chapa ran a large criminal enterprise whose activities included murders, narcotics trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, bribery, money laundering and torture," the court filing says.
SEE ALSO: Gulf Cartel News and Profile
It appears Guerrero Chapa in part was seeking anonymity with his family in moving to the Dallas metro region. Court records said he had been living in fear because "he had been found by people who wanted to kill him."
Federal officials say it's unusual to find high-ranking gang leaders like Guerrero Chapa in Texas, and particularly North Texas, a region the cartels over the years have used as a jumping off point to spread their drug distribution network. The Dallas region, fed by several freeways and small airports, allows for direct routes into the Midwest and beyond.
Ledezma Cepeda and the two other defendants are scheduled to stand trial later this month on charges including conspiracy to commit murder for hire and interstate stalking.
One of Ledezma Cepeda's attorneys, Wes Ball, said Guerrero Chapa headed the Gulf Cartel in a transitional or interim capacity. Federal authorities have said Guerrero Chapa was Cárdenas Guillén's lawyer and a principle figure in the cartel's operation.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of the US/Mexico Border
Cartels often have lower-level members living in the United States to broaden drug-trafficking efforts, Russ Baer, a spokesman for the US Drug Enforcement Administration, said in a statement. These operatives are usually in the states for limited periods and then rotated back to Mexico to avoid law enforcement scrutiny.
However, upper-level leaders usually do not live in the United States due to the increased likelihood of capture, Baer said.
Ball added that the trial for the three men charged in Guerrero Chapa's death could offer a rare look into cartel operations.
"Most of your cartel heads never go to trial, they almost always plead guilty," Ball said. "So public trials where all the nitty gritty details are laid out is actually pretty rare."
Guerrero Chapa's death near Dallas in 2013 came the same month as the conviction in Austin of the brother of two top leaders for a competing cartel.
José Treviño Morales and others used proceeds from US drug sales to purchase American quarter horses and launder the money. Court records show the operation was based out of suburban Dallas, and Treviño Morales was found to have invested $16 million dollars of drug money in the buying, training and racing of horses across the Southwest United States.
SEE ALSO: Zetas News and Profile
Treviño Morales is the brother of two former leaders of the Zetas, an organization that has expanded beyond the drug trade to become the biggest criminal group in Mexico. One of the men was captured in 2013 by Mexican authorities and the other two years later.
In another case, Juan Francisco Sáenz Támez was arrested by federal agents in 2014 while shopping in the South Texas city of Edinburg. The US Drug Enforcement Administration has said Sáenz Támez was a leader of the Gulf Cartel.