- Rafael Cardenas Vela admits to being a "plaza boss" in Mexico's Gulf Cartel
- He is the nephew of convicted drug kingpin Osiel Cardenas Guillen
- Cardenas Vela faces a maximum of life in prison, $10 million fine
The nephew and protege of an imprisoned Mexican drug cartel kingpin pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy charges in a federal court in Brownsville, Texas, on Monday.
Rafael Cardenas Vela, 38, admitted to being a "plaza boss" in the Gulf Cartel, which prosecutors said was responsible for smuggling thousands of kilograms of cocaine and marijuana into the United States from Mexico.
Cardenas Vela was arrested by federal agents during a traffic stop in southern Texas in October.
His uncle, Osiel Cardenas Guillen, led the Matamoros-based Gulf Cartel before he was convicted in 2010 on drug trafficking charges and sentenced to serve 25 years at the supermax prison in Fremont County, Colorado.
Cardenas Vela fled to the United States in May 2011 to escape an internal power struggle in the cartel after the November 2010 death of another uncle, Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, according to the U.S. Attorney's office.
He was still able to control his drug territory through the use of e-mails to key leadership within the cartel, the prosecutors said.
His operation purchased 70 to 80 kilograms of cocaine each month in southern Mexico, which was then smuggled across the U.S. border in small vehicles about 16 to 20 kilograms at a time, prosecutors said.
"At the time of Cardenas' arrest, it was discovered he had approximately 500 men equipped and ready to respond to his call," prosecutors said in a news release.
Cardenas Vela, who is scheduled to be sentenced on June 18, faces a minimum sentence of 10 years in prison and a maximum sentence of life in prison, a fine of up to $10 million and up to five years of supervised release, the government said.
His plea agreement gives the government a $5 million judgment and the forfeiture of his interest in real estate in Brownsville, which was purchased with drug proceeds, prosecutors said.