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Garcia Abrego’s Arrest Ends Extraordinary Ascent of Drug Trafficker

January 16, 1996

LA PALOMA, Texas (AP) _ As a boy, Juan Garcia Abrego was no different than the other children who roamed the potholed streets of this South Texas colonia where he was born.

``He was a simple person _ and then he changed,″ said Pablo Barbosa, who knew Garcia Abrego as a child.

Change he did. Shoving poverty aside, Garcia Abrego worked his way up from a small-time pot smuggler to become one of Mexico’s most powerful drug lords.

With an annual income estimated at $2 billion, Garcia Abrego needed money-counting machines to tally his cash, according to former employees.

His remarkable ascent ended with his arrest outside the northern Mexican city of Monterrey. On Monday, he was deported to Houston, where he faces a 26-count indictment on charges spanning drug trafficking, money laundering and murder.

The 51-year-old Garcia Abrego reportedly was born here in his grandmother’s home, a small, cobalt house lined with red and pink rose bushes. Barbosa now lives in the house.

``He was just like any of us,″ Barbosa said of Garcia Abrego, adding, ``We can all be one way now and another later.″

Authorities say Garcia Abrego began smuggling drugs as a young man, floating small packages of marijuana across the Rio Grande. Even then, he seemed destined for something bigger, one of his former employees told The Associated Press last March.

``It was a goal that he had to get into this, and he was going to be `Numero Uno,‴ said Oscar Lopez Olivares. ``He was going to get in and nobody was going to take away his honor.″

In May 1984, Garcia Abrego made his move. Allegedly on his orders, gunmen attacked a former associate named Casimiro ``El Cacho″ Espinosa Campo in a Matamoros, Mexico, clinic.

El Cacho died, and his lieutenants reportedly shifted their loyalties to Garcia Abrego, allegedly using their Colombian connections to propel him into large-scale cocaine trafficking. The Gulf cartel was born.

From bases in Monterrey and Matamoros, among several other North American cities, Garcia Abrego quickly grew the cartel into the second most powerful drug organization in Mexico.

He convinced colleagues in the Cali cartel in Colombia to pay him for his smuggling work in cocaine instead of just cash. Other Mexican cartel leaders followed suit, gradually gaining their own delivery and distribution networks.

Garcia Abrego reportedly doled out millions of dollars in bribes to high-ranking Mexican officials, who responded by turning a blind eye while he smuggled hundreds of tons of cocaine into the United States annually.

Among Garcia Abrego’s alleged associates was Raul Salinas, the elder brother of former Mexico President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

Testifying in federal court two years ago, former employee Francisco Perez Monroy described Garcia Abrego as hot-tempered and willing to execute anyone who crossed him. U.S. and Mexican authorities say that portrait is accurate, and claim he is responsible for dozens of murders in both countries.

Last year, Garcia Abrego’s notoriety reached new heights when he became the first international drug trafficker named to the FBI’s list of 10 most-wanted fugitives.

The designation, while confirming Garcia Abrego’s status in the drug world, also led to his downfall. Shortly afterward, he reportedly began to negotiate the terms of a surrender that included being jailed in the Mexican prison of his choice and allowing his wife and girlfriends to inherit his fortune.

Mexican officials involved in his arrest denied they ever negotiated with Garcia Abrego.

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