Recent arrests in a mistaken killing point to the perilous presence of gangs
By DANE SCHILLER
Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle
March 7, 2009, 9:28PM
Jose Perez was enjoying a night out with his wife, Norma, in 2006 when hitmen with a Mexican drug cartel mistook him for a rival trafficker and gunned him down.
The order was clear: Kill the guy in the Astros jersey.
But in a case of mistaken identity, Jose Perez ended up dead. The intended target — the Houston-based head of a Mexican drug cartel cell pumping millions of dollars of cocaine into the city — walked away.
Perez, 27, was just a working guy, out getting dinner late on a Friday with his wife and young children at Chilos, a seafood restaurant on the Gulf Freeway.
His murder and the assassination gone awry point to the perilous presence of Mexican organized crime and how cartel violence has seeped into the city.
Arrests came in December when police and federal agents got a break in the 2006 shooting as they charted the relationship and rivalries between at least five cartel cells operating in Houston. A rogue’s gallery of about 100 names and mug shots taken at Texas jails and morgues offers a blueprint for Mexican organized crime.
Houston has long been a major staging ground for importing illegal drugs from Mexico and shipping them to the rest of the United States, but a recent Department of Justice report notes it is one of 230 cities where cartels maintain distribution networks and supply lines.
At Chilos, the real crime boss was sitting at another table, as were two spotters. The hitman waited in the parking lot for Perez to leave the restaurant.
“I just remember that guy coming up to us and he started shooting and shooting and shooting and never stopped,” said Norma Gonzalez, Perez’s widow. He was hit twice.
“I know they will pay for what they have done, maybe in the next life,” she said of Perez’s killers. “I don’t know what is going to happen to them in this life.”
The gangster — captured on surveillance video — blended in with other customers as they gawked at the aftermath. A few months later, he was dead too, gunned down two miles from the restaurant.
“It is here and it has been here, but people don’t want to listen,” Rick Moreno, a Houston police homicide investigator working with the Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI, said of the cartels’ presence in Houston. "It is so far-reaching>"
Washington is taking notice, even if the toll on U.S. streets is nowhere near as pervasive as in Mexico, where cartels are locked in a war against one another and with the government.
“International drug trafficking organizations pose a sustained, serious threat to the safety and security of our communities,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said. “We can provide our communities the safety and the security that they deserve only by confronting these dangerous cartels head-on without reservation,” he said.
When it comes to tearing into the cartels in Houston, an investigation later code-named Operation Three Stars got quietly under way three years ago, as an undercover DEA agent stood in line at a McDonald’s in north Houston. He listened to a drug trafficker using a two-way radio to set up delivery of $750,000; the man was with his wife and kids, ordering Happy Meals while making the deal.
Since then, more than 70 people in Houston have been prosecuted as a result of the ongoing operation and more than $5 million has been seized, as well as about 3,000 pounds of cocaine, according to court documents and law enforcement officers.
How many people are involved in cartel business is unknown, authorities said. Alliances shift quickly, as can the need to shut down to evade the law. Federal agents concede that numbers garnered by the operation pale compared to the cash and drugs pumped through Houston, but contend they’ve headed off countless crimes.
“The public never gets the full picture, they don’t understand these murders, these kidnappings, these violent crimes are directly tied to these organizations,” said Violet Szeleczky, spokeswoman for the DEA regional office in Houston. “A lot of these guys are just real dirtbags.”
Hard to spot connections
In the murky underworld, it takes time and luck to connect dots.
The accused mastermind of the Chilos attack, Jaime Zamora, 38, is charged with capital murder. He lived modestly, worked for Houston’s Parks and Recreation Department and was a Little League volunteer. State prosecutor Colleen Barnett said in court that such a profile was how he avoided detection.
Paul Looney, Zamora’s lawyer, contends the government can’t prove his client has ever touched drugs or drug money, or that he is a crime boss. He added that Zamora had never before been arrested.
“I don’t think there is a chance in hell (the prosecutor) is right about her theory of the case,” Looney said.
Court documents indicate Steven Torres, 26, one of the men charged with helping Zamora with the 2006 killing, confessed “his part involving arranging the murder.” In 2002, he was sentenced to 10 years probation after being convicted of a murder he committed when he was 16.
His lawyer could not be reached.
Authorities, saying it’s tough to spot cartel connections because the gangsters work in several jurisdictions, point to at least seven homicides in the Houston area since 2006, as well as nine home invasions and five kidnappings tied to cartels. They believe there are many more.
Among the unsolved local killings is the death of Pedro Cardenas Guillen, 36, whose last name is considered trafficking royalty. He was shot in the head and left in a ditch off Madden Road, near Fort Bend County.
His uncle is Osiel Cardenas Guillen, reputed head of the powerful Gulf Cartel. He was extradited from Mexico and awaits trial in Houston on charges of drug trafficking, money laundering and threatening to kill federal agents.
Third attempt succeeded
Other victims of what authorities believe are cartel-related murders include a husband and wife who were tortured and shot in the head on Easingwold Drive, in northwest Houston. About 220 pounds of cocaine were later found in their attic.
Some victims were in the drug business and may have owed money; others could be relatives of criminals or innocent victims, authorities say. Santiago “Chago” Salinas, 28, the crime boss who escaped death at Chilos, was killed six months later.
High on cocaine as he answered the door of a room at the Baymont Inn on the Gulf Freeway, he was shot three times in the head.
It was the third and final attempt on the life of the man who’d once been shot in the neck and left for dead in Mexico. His killing may have been the latest payback between rivals slugging it out.
Chago’s brother-in-law was killed in Mexico, as was Zamora’s younger brother, who was known as “Danny Boy” and who was a lieutenant in a trafficking organization, according to authorities. Danny Boy’s boss, a major player in the Sinaloa cartel, also was murdered in Mexico.
Those who survive the wrath of cartel gangsters don’t forget.
“I thought I was going to die for sure,” recalled David DeLeon, a used-car dealer who was kidnapped on Airline Drive and severely beaten while being held for ransom, also in 2006. He was rescued by Houston police, but not before he was punched, kicked and thrown across a room so much that his face was unrecognizable.
Authorities say the kidnappers were low-ranking thugs working for a cartel cell.
In another instance, men armed with assault rifles attacked a Houston home. The resident used a handgun to kill one and wound another before the survivors left.
Norma Gonzalez, whose husband was killed at Chilos, said she believes he used his body to shield his 4-year-old daughter and infant son. Leaning over her husband in the parking lot, she whispered, “Everything is going to be OK.”
He died minutes later.