Sunday, January 8, 2017


(Ed.'s Note: This story first appeared in the New York Times on February 9, 1996. It tells of the origins of the Gulf Cartel boss Juan Garcia Abrego and of his uncle, the former north Tamaulipas crime boss Juan N. Guerra. It should be noted that Abrego was convicted in Houston in October 1996 of 22 counts of drug trafficking, conspiracy, money laundering and operating a continuing criminal enterprises and sentenced to 11 life sentences in 1997 and fined him $128 million. Guerra died in July 2001 of natural causes.)

By Sam Dillon
The New York Times
The sun is blazing on the street outside, but it is dark inside the Piedras Negras Restaurant, and it takes visitors a moment before they can clearly see the two bodyguards, wearing cowboy boots and beepers, slouched in chairs facing the entrance.

These men work for the owner, a frail man, 80 years old, seated at the rear, under a cage of chirping canaries: Juan N. Guerra, the patriarch of a criminal dynasty along the Texas-Mexico border.
Mr. Guerra's name has been in the papers recently because his nephew is Juan Garcia Abrego, who is awaiting trial in Houston on charges that he ran a huge cocaine trafficking operation. So when a reporter approaches his wheelchair where he is sipping ice water and introduces himself, Mr. Guerra smirks.
"Are you a narcotics trafficker?" Mr. Guerra asks, with a hint of sarcasm.
"No, I'm a newspaper reporter."
'Well I'm not a trafficker either, just a common citizen," Mr. Guerra says. "Go talk to the President or a general or somebody important."

He pauses, then offers his visitor a chair. "Reporters write lies about me," he says. I'm just a working man. I don't smoke, I don't drink and I don't sing."
One of his bodyguards lets forth a cackle.

Even before his nephew's arrest, Mr. Guerra was well known in Mexico as a cagey brigand who built a fortune in the arms trade, rum-running, prostitution, protection, and gambling.
"He's a legend," said Ramon Antonio Sampayo, the mayor of this town across from Brownsville, Tex.
An American intelligence report says Mr. Guerra reared his nephew on car-thieving before bequeathing control of his organization to him a decade ago. "Garcia Abrego's rise to the top of the drug world was aided by two factors," the report says, one being his alliance with Colombia's Cali cartel. His other ticket to success, it says, was "the political clout of his uncle, Juan N. Guerra Sr., a long-time Matamoros underworld leader."

As the godfather of a crime family, Mr. Guerra is to northeast Mexico, perhaps, what Carlo Gambino used to be to New York. His restaurant has the same sinister reputation in Matamoros that the Ravenite Social Club has in Little Italy, and on this day its wood-paneled booths are empty.
But the door swings open, and the first of a series of local well-wishers moves to Mr. Guerra's table, a physician whose relative has had the misfortune to crash into Mr. Guerra's van. Whether from sincere contrition or severe trepidation, the physician exudes penitence, whimpering apologies to Mr. Guerra. Then he slinks out.

There is a pause, after which Mr. Guerra tells a bit about his life, starting with how he chopped cotton, hauled wood and tended mules on his father's ranch during the Depression. The chronicle turns murky in the 1940's, however, when legend has it that he rose to wealth moving contraband during World War II.
In those years, he married Gloria Landeros, a beautiful singer who visited Matamoros with a road show, and she bore him three children. Then one day an actor and old friend of his wife visited her, and in a jealous fury, Mr. Guerra shot his wife dead. Mr. Guerra was arrested but released when the killing was ruled to be self-defense.

"I don't live by dreams but by realities," is all Mr. Guerra will say of these events. "And what I don't like, I leave along the way."
Other legends nourished Mr. Guerra's cold-blooded reputation: One has it that he killed Pancho Villa's son. He is also said to have shot a man for speaking too loudly in the Piedras Negras.

But until his imprisonment in 1991 for a few weeks on tax evasion charges, Mr. Guerra had never spent more than a few hours in jail, reputedly because he bought off entire generations of mayors, governors, police commanders and customs administrators. Mr. Garcia Abrego apparently picked up similar political skills, because he, too, is said to have paid millions of dollars in monthly bribes to government officials, including a deputy attorney general.

About his nephew, Mr. Guerra will say little. "I'm his relative," he says, "but that's not a crime -- or is
"Listen," he says. "He's one coyote, and I'm a different coyote. He took his road, and I took mine."
But from the mid-1970's through the mid-1980's, the younger coyote followed closely in his uncle's path, law enforcement officials say. When exactly Mr. Garcia Abrego moved into control of Mr. Guerra's organization is not clear, however. One American official dates the succession to 1987, when Colombian cocaine was flooding Matamoros and outside traffickers were trying to muscle in.

On Jan. 27, 1987, Tomas Morlet, a former officer in an elite Mexican police force who had become a powerful national trafficker, visited Mr. Garcia Abrego at the Piedras Negras. Harsh words were spoken, and Mr. Morlet ended up dead in the restaurant door, shot twice in the back. One of Mr. Garcia Abrego's aides was also killed.

"That was when Garcia Abrego took command," said an American law enforcement official. "It took guts to take out a man like Morlet."

At the mention of Mr. Morlet, Mr. Guerra begins talking about racehorses, his great love. He tells of a 1965 race in which his thoroughbred, Black Bull, earned him the equivalent of $80,000. One of his bodyguards breaks into song:
"Black Bull was a race horse,
The very best of his era,
The earth shook when he ran,
Defending Don Juan N. Guerra."

The song pleases Mr. Guerra, but he is tiring, and he begins to speak in aphorisms. He seems to offer belated advice for his nephew: "When you sin, do it with discretion," he says.
Another bit of wisdom announces that the interview is over. "Don't go where you're not invited," he says, gazing at his visitor with steely eyes.


Anonymous said...

To many of the younger folks have no personal knowledge of Juan N.. When we were teenage boys a stop at the Piedras Negras, to pay our respect to him was part of the Matamoros experience. We sampled the fleshpots and alcohol emporiums of our sister city, knowing the Juan N ran a tight ship and nobody was going to give the Gringo kids a serious hassle. We were a protected species in the 1950s.

He was always courteous to us, but we knew who he was and what could happen to those who hung around him to long. Several shootouts took place there in those days. None-the-less, I have fond memories of those days and of the Godfather of Matamoros.

Anonymous said...

Those men knew how to work, not the new generation that think that killing for $1000 is smart. These men respected the public, protected the weak and we're stand up. Dying breed.

Anonymous said...

Missing Alex Perez in the picture

Anonymous said...

Hahahaha. Alex PĂ©rez. Hahaha.