Top cartel leader appeared to find temporary haven in Texas

DALLAS (AP) — A man who was slain at an upscale suburban Dallas shopping center is identified in federal court documents as the acting leader of a notorious Mexican cartel, a claim that would run counter to the long-held belief that drug kingpins seldom try to hide in the United States.

Juan Jesus Guerrero Chapa moved into a million-dollar home in Southlake in 2011, two years before he was fatally shot by three men who prosecutors say had been stalking him for months.

According to a recent court filing submitted by the lawyers for Jesus Gerardo Ledezma-Cepeda — one of three suspects slated to stand trial for Chapa's killing — Chapa became the interim head of the Gulf Cartel — one of Mexico's most violent drug-trafficking rings — following the arrest of predecessor Osiel Cardenas-Guillen, who was extradited to the U.S. in 2007 and later sentenced to 25 years in prison.

As head of the Gulf Cartel, "Chapa ran a large criminal enterprise whose activities included murders, narcotics trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, bribery, money laundering and torture," the court filing says.

It appears Chapa in part was seeking anonymity with his family in moving to the Dallas metro region. Court records said he had been living in fear because "he had been found by people who wanted to kill him."

Federal officials say it's unusual to find high-ranking gang leaders like Chapa in Texas, and particularly North Texas, a region the cartels over the years have used as a jumping off point to spread their drug distribution network. The Dallas region, fed by several freeways and small airports, allows for direct routes into the Midwest and beyond.

Ledezma-Cepeda and the two other defendants are scheduled to stand trial later this month on charges including conspiracy to commit murder for hire and interstate stalking.

One of Ledezma-Cepeda's attorneys, Wes Ball, said Chapa headed the Gulf Cartel in a transitional or interim capacity. Federal authorities have said Chapa was Cardenas-Guillen's lawyer and a principle figure in the cartel's operation.

Cartels often have lower-level members living in the U.S. to broaden drug-trafficking efforts, Russ Baer, a spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said in a statement. These operatives are usually in the states for limited periods and then rotated back to Mexico to avoid law enforcement scrutiny.

However, upper-level leaders usually do not live in the U.S. due to the increased likelihood of capture, Baer said.

Ball added that the trial for the three men charged in Chapa's death could offer a rare look into cartel operations.

"Most of your cartel heads never go to trial, they almost always plead guilty," Ball said. "So public trials where all the nitty gritty details are laid out is actually pretty rare."

Chapa's death near Dallas in 2013 came the same month as the conviction in Austin of the brother of two top leaders for a competing cartel.

Jose Trevino Morales and others used proceeds from U.S. drug sales to purchase American quarter horses and launder the money. Court records show the operation was based out of suburban Dallas, and Trevino Morales was found to have invested $16 million of drug money in the buying, training and racing of horses across the Southwest United States.

Trevino Morales is the brother of two former leaders of the Zetas, an organization that has expanded beyond the drug trade to become the biggest criminal group in Mexico. One of the men was captured in 2013 by Mexican authorities and the other two years later.

In another case, Juan Francisco Saenz-Tamez was arrested by federal agents in 2014 while shopping in the South Texas city of Edinburg. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has said Saenz-Tamez was a leader of the Gulf Cartel.