Bribes, Murder and Scarface: How the Zetas Bought a Mexican Border State

BORDERLAND BEAT — They made sure the place didn’t look like much from the outside, just another plain, unassuming house in the middle of quiet residential neighborhood somewhere in the Mexican border state of Coahuila.

Inside, however, the place was a decked-out safe haven for leaders of the powerful Zetas drug cartel. Testifying in a San Antonio federal courtroom Wednesday, a former top financial advisor to the Zetas remembered helping cartel bosses build what they called the “VIP.” There was the large room with a jacuzzi and a bar with every kind of liquor imaginable, and a part of the house where the cartel kept pit bulls and prisoners. Rodrigo Humberto Uribe Tapia, who claims he helped launder some $50 million in drug proceeds for the cartel before fleeing to the United States in 2009, says a top Zetas commander insisted the place be Scarface-themed. The commander asked that Uribe hang a blown-up image of of a scene from the movie where Tony Montana buries his face in cocaine mountain. “He was kind of like an idol to him,” Uribe said on the stand.

Uribe was the first to testify in what’s expected to be the lengthy trial of Marciano Millan Vasquez, who prosecutors claim was a Zetas hitman, or sicario, before assuming control of the gang’s forces in Piedras Negras, a critical city for the cartel because of two international bridges into Eagle Pass that make the area a lucrative smuggling route into Texas.

Millan Vasquez, who was arrested in San Antonio last year, faces multiple charges that could put him in prison for life. Prosecutors are expected to bring evidence that Millan Vasquez was in part responsible for a wave of killings, abductions and disappearances that have paralyzed Coahuila in recent years.

One of the charges against Millan Vasquez allows the feds to prosecute him for killings in another country since they claim the violence was tied to a drug trafficking conspiracy that stretched deep into the United States. These charges stem from the Allende massacre, in which as many as 300 people disappeared in 2011, and the murders of at least 150 people in the Piedras Negras penitentiary between 2009 and 2012.

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