Muffled by a silencer, the gunshots from the killer's 9mm made no more noise than a six-pack opening as he fired into a parked Range Rover. Wearing a hoodie, his face covered by a bandanna, the drug cartel hit man tattooed the front passenger side window with at least seven bullet holes.
Inside the SUV, Juan Jesús Guerrero Chapa looked as if he were getting ready to climb over the backseat to escape the killers authorities would later identify as “Clorox" and “the Captain." They’d been hunting Guerrero Chapa, 43, for years as part of the endless drug wars and blood feuds that have claimed countless lives in Mexico. They'd finally found him at 6:47 p.m. on May 22, 2013, at the Southlake Town Square shopping center, a ritzy outdoor mall in the wealthy, peaceful suburb northwest of Dallas.
Clorox and the Captain were never arrested, but three other men were eventually sent to prison for helping set up the murder. Federal prosecutors say José “Joe” Luis Cepeda Cortes, 60, and his cousin Jesús “Chuy” Ledezma Cepeda, 59, and the latter's son Jesús “Gerardo” Ledezma Campano, 32, were hired by Mexico's Beltrán Leyva cartel to track down Guerrero Chapa, a lawyer for the rival Gulf cartel and a U.S. informant. The elder men were convicted of interstate stalking and conspiracy to commit murder for hire in early May 2016. Ledezma Campano pleaded guilty to stalking leading to death and testified against his father and cousin.
There is no question Ledezma Cepeda and his son spent two years hunting down Guerrero Chapa, following a trail of business and court records from Texas to Florida, planting GPS trackers on his car and setting up clandestine cameras outside his home. Cepeda Cortes, however, insists his involvement was minimal and he's innocent of the charges that sent him to a maximum-security prison in Beaumont, and his son Joey Cepeda has taken up his father's cause. They claim Cepeda Cortes was duped by his cousin Ledezma Cepeda into helping him track down a man he thought was a deadbeat borrower, not the “de facto head” of the Gulf cartel, running operations out of Southlake.
Law enforcement officials say otherwise. Reports in the case they presented before senior U.S. District Judge Terry Means in Fort Worth showed that Cepeda Cortes had been in touch with a Beltrán Leyva cartel member on 15 different occasions. They claim Cepeda Cortes also asked for more money when he found out they were working for the cartel shortly before Guerrero Chapa's murder. Even while Cepeda Cortes' son pushes forward with his campaign to exonerate his father through the media and watchdog groups, law enforcement officials say cartel members are becoming more deeply entrenched in the day-to-day fabric of America in 1,200 cities, buying businesses and homes – sometimes with cash – and sending their kids to U.S. schools. Sorting through the mounds of evidence shows how freely cartels operate in U.S. cities, from the streets of Southlake to the blood-soaked border with Mexico.
Jose "Joey" Cepeda Jr., 36, operates three business out of his office in McAllen on the U.S.-Mexico border: an information technology consultancy, a licensed video surveillance company and a drone business for surveyors and engineers. As far as he knows, he isn’t under investigation, though he has caught the attention of some powerful people.
A few months before the U.S. presidential election, Cepeda attended a “Pachanga 4 Trump” event at the Hidalgo County Republican office and spent couple of minutes discussing his father’s case in a Facebook live video, encouraging then-candidate Donald Trump to investigate his claims that the U.S. Department of Justice was railroading his father, who was initially facing the death penalty for helping his cousin find Guerrero Chapa.
“Right now, everyone is focused on Hillary and her emails,” Cepeda said in the video viewed more than 750,000 times when Trump shared it on his Facebook page a month after his father's conviction. “But there is something that has happened in the Northern District of Texas. A U.S. prosecutor named Josh Burgess has lied. He feels he has the license to lie. He indicted our father based on lies."
The FBI claims his father confessed to the crime, Cepeda says, but the portion of the video where he purportedly confesses is missing. FBI agents say the recorder's battery died before they finished the interview, but Cepeda says they're just trying to bury the fact that they had allowed Guerrero Chapa, a government informant, to live in Southlake when he was still acting as a leader of the Gulf cartel.
“I didn’t think he was going to see it,” says Cepeda, who flew to D.C. in early January to attend Trump’s inauguration. “If I had known Trump was going to see it, I would have said more.”
Cepeda waited all three weeks of his father’s trial to testify. In the end, he never took the stand, but he’s been saying a lot since his father was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. He’s turned his father's exoneration into a crusade.
He created a website called “TheyLiedAgain” to highlight all the lies he alleges were told about his father during the trial. “Let us introduce you to the TRUTH, and present to you the LIES of prosecutors who feel they have the license to LIE, and RUIN the reputation of families,” he wrote.
“Quite simply, there is a bigger story the USDOJ doesn't want you to know,” he continued. “Ask yourself, Why did [former U.S. Attorney General] Eric Holder seek the death penalty on a case that hadn't finished its investigation? And then resign one week later? Why did prosecutors try to force Cepeda Cortes to admit to LIES with plea deals and threats of false prison snitches if he goes to trial? Why did the FBI lie that the interview was not fully recorded because of camera failure? Yet they indicted him saying he confessed to conspiracy?”
Seeking the death penalty, he says, bought prosecutors more than a year, giving them time to build their case and persuade Ledezma Campano to accept a plea deal in exchange for a lighter sentence and protection for his family if he testified against his father and cousin.
The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Texas declined to comment.
Ledezma Cepeda never changed his testimony that Cepeda Cortes and his son didn’t know a rival cartel had hired him to find Guerrero Chapa. He even sent his son a note before the trial that reads in English:
Pepe told what he knew. Don't worry, all the responsibility lies with me. I used both of you, not knowing what it was. You are not responsible. Please leave it all to me.
Your Dad, Chuy
To prove how easy it is to dupe someone into helping the cartel, Joey Cepeda decided to do an internet search for private investigators and called one randomly and recorded their conversation. He spun a story similar to his father’s tale: that he was from the McAllen area and represented a potential client from Monterrey, Mexico, who was looking for someone who skipped town owing money.
“Oh yeah, I love Monterrey. I’ve been down there a number of times,” the Dallas private investigator replied. “Yeah, I can look into these guys, figure out what they own, and their whole background. Hell, I can even look into bank accounts and stuff if you think they’re hiding the money in the bank accounts.”
They continued discussing the details of the case and the steps to take. The private investigator assured him he’d assume an alias and offered to set up surveillance cameras. “I work with one of my best friends, [and he] owns the best camera company in Dallas,” he said. “I can have long-range cameras I can set up. I can do the whole thing.”
“Did you hear how easily and how willing this American private investigator was wanting to accept this job from Mexico?” Cepeda asks. “He doesn’t even know these people, and he’s going to take the job; he’s running to sign up. That’s what I’m telling you. My father was not a key figure in this. He was not conspiring for murder. That’s exactly how his cousins tricked him.”
Cepeda Cortes' involvement in the murder started with a simple request from his cousin: help a Mexican bank find white-collar criminals who committed fraud and fled across the U.S. border.
Ledezma Cepeda was good at his job.He had spent the last 30 years tracking down scoundrels. He had worked as a police officer for a time in Monterrey before turning to private investigation because the money was better. He mostly worked for lawyers and businessmen.
He'd helped Cepeda Cortes win custody of his three children in the late '90s by finding his wife's marriage certificate to another man filed at a courthouse in Mexico. “He felt indebted,” says Cepeda Cortes' brother Ruben Cepeda. “And that’s what cousins do. You help each other out. If he had asked me, I would have done the same thing.”
Besides needing his cousin to act as a translator, Ledezma Cepeda wanted access to his Texas driver’s license to check public records and his 40-year history of Texas residency to rent a couple of apartments for him. He also needed someone to run logistical support while he staked out his target and to share the majority of the expenses he'd later reimburse.
“‘Hey, I’m gonna start doing work here in America,'” Cepeda Cortes recalled his cousin saying. “‘I have some attorneys that represent a bank, and they’re needing me to start doing some work here. You want to start helping me out?'”
Family members say Cepeda Cortes was excited about the prospect of learning the private investigator trade, but he would have never agreed to help if he had known the people his cousin tracked ended up dead.
The list of cartel hits connected to Ledezma Cepeda's tracking was extensive. Luis Cortes Ochoa, Dionicio Cantu Rendon, Eliseo Martinez Elizondo, Felipe Cantu Lozano and Juan Cantu Cuellar, Hector Javier Alvarez Reyna, former Escobedo police Chief Artemio Gonzalez Wong, Rolando Caballero Diaz – all kidnapped, dead or presumed dead between 2010 and 2014, according to law-enforcement documents.
“Of course, he didn’t know the background of what was going on with my cousin,” Cepeda Cortes' brother Ruben says. “He didn’t really investigate my cousin like I did. Chuy was a really cool guy, but had a lot of buddies who were no good.”
Cepeda Cortes and Ledezma Cepeda were close in age but grew up on opposite sides of the border. Their families hailed from Monterrey, the capital of Mexico’s state of Nuevo Léon, not far from where Juan Guerrero Chapa and Rodolfo Villarreal Hernandez, a drug cartel kingpin known as “El Gato” (The Cat), grew up in the small town of China.
Cepeda Cortes was the son of an auto-body repairman who left Monterrey in 1956 and immigrated to a lower working-class neighborhood in Detroit. Cepeda Cortes became a phone repairman shortly after the family moved from Detroit to McAllen in 1975 to be closer to family in Mexico. He spent more than 40 years at Southwestern Bell and later GTE/Verizon before he retired.
Ledezma Cepeda was the son of a lawman and grew up middle class in Monterrey. He became known for his work as a private investigator when he joined a billionaire mayor’s privately funded secret intelligence squad, called “Grupo Rudo” (the Rough Group), in 2010.
Mauricio Fernandez, 59, the mayor of San Pedro Garza Garcìa, a wealthy suburb of Monterrey, had recruited former police officers and tough guys to fight drug cartels. He installed 2,000 security cameras in the city and hired criminal informants to help them. “I pay for information just like the FBI or Scotland Yard,” Fernandez told local newspapers.
Ledezma Campano testified in federal court in late 2016 that Fernandez actually wanted the group to fight only the cartels threatening the Beltrán Leyva cartel's operations in San Pedro. At that time in early 2010, the Beltrán Leyva brothers were allied with Los Zetas, Mexico's largest drug cartel. The brothers were once allies of the Gulf cartel until they learned Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, the Gulf cartel boss who was captured in 2003, had betrayed them when he asked his attorney Juan Guerrero Chapa to share information and $50 million in assets with the U.S. government.
Guerrero Chapa fled Monterrey after war erupted between the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas in 2010. Cartels began targeting military, state and municipal police, killing corrupt officers affiliated with the opposing cartels. “Fierce gun battles continue on the highway to Reynosa, impeding traffic flows, and narco-traffickers have set up roadblocks in the city,” the U.S. State Department reported.
Fernandez hired Ledezma Cepeda to install surveillance cameras around San Pedro but disbanded the Rough Group shortly thereafter. Fernandez was under fire because he had announced the death of a high-level drug trafficker named Francisco “Negro” Saldana Perales before his body was found stuffed in the trunk of a car in Mexico City. The New York Times published an article about the rich mayor, his intelligence operation and ties to the Beltrán Leyva cartel in April 2010.
Then Mexican authorities arrested Ledezma Cepeda's friend Alberto Mendoza Contreras, known as “Chico Malo” (Bad Boy) and a regional leader for the Beltrán Leyva cartel. Rodolfo “El Gato” Villarreal Hernandez, a former federal police officer, assumed control of San Pedro plaza for the Beltrán Leyva cartel. He sought to find whoever sent the police to Chico Malo's home. Ledezma Campano claimed only three people knew the home address: his father, the mayor and the police chief, who had once dated Guerrero Chapa's sister.
Ledezma Cepeda went into hiding, but El Gato soon found him. He and his son were taken to a tire store in Monterrey where blood-stained chainsaws hung on the wall, and armed guards and El Gato’s right hand man Antonio Perales, known as “El Pelón” (The Bald One), awaited.
Ledezma Cepeda convinced El Gato that he didn’t snitch, but the regional cartel boss wanted him to find out who did. The San Pedro deputy secretary of public security, Luis Cortes Ochoa, got the blame, Ledezma Campano later testified in court. They placed GPS trackers on the secretary's car, and he joined the thousands of other people murdered in the cartel wars since 2010.
El Gato wasn't finished. He hired them next to find Juan Guerrero Chapa and his businesses in Texas. It was common knowledge in China that El Gato wanted Guerrero Chapa dead because he blamed him for his father’s death.
El Gato’s father didn’t work with the cartels but was an unofficial informant with police units operating around China, which the Gulf cartel controlled. Guerrero Chapa's boss was upset about the checkpoints El Gato’s father helped set up around China.
Guerrero Chapa was blamed for El Gato’s father’s death, but none of the DEA or FBI reports obtained by the Observer indicate he actually pulled the trigger. “Problem is [El Gato] always thought Juan knew where the body was buried, or what happened to the body,” one of Guerrero Chapa's cartel associates told The Dallas Morning News.
Ledezma Cepeda claims he was under duress because Beltrán Leyva cartel enforcers had broken into his home and tortured his family to get him to cooperate and nearly killed his son, Ledezma Campano, when he tried to leave the murder-for-hire plot in late 2012. “There's no choice,” Ledezma Campano told the Texas jury in late April 2016. “You can't hide from these people. You do what they tell you or you die. And you don't die [as in] lethal injection ... they rip you apart in pieces alive.”
Federal agents say Ledezma Cepeda had multiple chances to take his family and seek refuge from the cartel across the border. When a prosecutor asked him why he didn’t escape with his family, he replied, “Well, it’s very costly. I did try to sell my house in an effort to leave the country, but like I said, it’s like the country’s kidnapped. If I were to try and sell my house, no one would pay me what it’s worth.”
Ledezma Cepeda taught his cousin several tools of the private investigation trade as they began their search for Guerrero Chapa. One of the most important to remember, he claimed, is always use an alias. His was Juan Ramos. He used it when he checked in at hotels or picked up GPS trackers and other spy equipment at RGV SpyTek in McAllen.
Cepeda Cortes broke the rule, however. In a move that would lead to his undoing, he used his personal email address when he asked the spy shop to check the warranty on a malfunctioning GPS tracker. His cousins planned to place the magnetic trackers on Guerrero Chapa's and his business partners' vehicles. One was found on Guerrero Chapa's Range Rover on the day of his murder. Federal agents tracked it back to Cepeda Cortes' email address.
With a list of names given to him by the cartel, Ledezma Cepeda tasked his novice cousin with searching Publicdata.com to track down Guerrero Chapa’s business partners, who turned out to be family members. They owned about 20 businesses from McAllen to South Florida, including a metal recycling company, a trucking company and a ranch. They formed a South Texas gaming company in December 2010 and invested in casinos in the U.S. and Mexico.
Cepeda Cortes told his brother Raul that he felt like James Bond until he realized exactly whom they’d been tracking shortly before Guerrero Chapa's murder. “What the hell did I get myself involved in?” Cepeda Cortes recalled to FBI agents when they arrested him. “You know, I’m trying to help my cousin. I didn’t even charge him.”
Cepeda Cortes' help led his cousins to properties owned by Guerrero Chapa’s family in the Fort Worth area.
Their investigation led them to New York, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Austin, Dallas and San Antonio. They searched public records, visited more courthouses and picked up Guerrero Chapa’s scent in properties purchased with cash.
They located property Guerrero Chapa owned in Grapevine in October 2012 and shortly afterward found Chapa’s brother Armando in Florida, where he moved after fleeing China in 2010. Ledezma Cepeda persuaded his cousin to rent him a place close to the neighborhood where Guerrero Chapa’s brother lived in Florida, as well as an apartment in Grapevine, because hotels were becoming too costly. Ledezma Cepeda figured Guerrero Chapa would eventually visit his brother and waited more than a month for him to do so, but he never showed.
El Gato's right-hand man El Pelón did. He helped with surveillance in Florida in early 2013. Ledezma Cepeda claimed he’d been receiving his orders from El Pelón, and federal law enforcement reports show that Cepeda Cortes had been in contact with El Pelón on 15 different occasions. Cepeda Cortes' son claims his father's cousin had introduced El Pelón as his assistant, sent by the bank that hired them to make sure he was doing his job.
The cousins always seemed to be one step behind Guerrero Chapa until they found his April 6, 2011, arrest report for a domestic violence charge in Miami-Dade County in February 2013. Guerrero Chapa had been arrested for slapping his girlfriend, and they discovered her name. It would lead them to Guerrero Chapa's home in Southlake and his assassins to the shopping center..
It didn’t take them long to find Guerrero Chapa once they established he lived in the Grapevine area. They followed Chapa’s sister-in-law to the DFW Lakes Hilton and found Guerrero Chapa’s vehicle. They took photos and placed a GPS tracker underneath it.
Cepeda Cortes didn't physically help his cousins set up surveillance cameras hunters normally used to track game, but he did purchase them and had them sent to the Grapevine apartment. Camouflaged, with night vision and motion sensor capabilities, they were remotely controlled and set up near Guerrero Chapa’s driveway and in his Southlake neighborhood. They were programmed to send photos to Ledezma Cepeda's phone, which he would then share via Dropbox and email.
The day of Guerrero Chapa’s murder, El Gato told Ledezma Cepeda and his son, who helped with the actual surveillance, to remain in the shopping center in Southlake where they had followed Guerrero Chapa and his wife. They were told the GPS tracker had quit working – the same malfunctioning one Cepeda Cortes had inquired about. El Gato wanted confirmation of Guerrero Chapa’s death, but they suspected a double cross.
Shortly before Guerrero Chapa was murdered, Ledezma Cepeda told his son to turn off his phone and go grab coffee. Then he pulled out a pair of binoculars and waited for Clorox and the Captain's arrival.
Ledezma Cepeda told FBI agents that he didn’t know the cartel planned to kill Guerrero Chapa, whom federal agents reported was still serving as the “de facto head” of the Gulf cartel while his boss served his 25-year sentence in a federal prison in Florence, Colorado. But, in 2010, El Pelón had sent him an email that discussed “painting” Guerrero Chapa, which federal agents claim is a code word for murder.
At 6:46 p.m., Ledezma Cepeda watched as Guerrero Chapa climbed into the front passenger side of the Range Rover while his wife, Julia, loaded their shopping bags into the backseat. The cartel hit men pulled up in a white 2002 Toyota Sequoia they had purchased on Craigslist and parked behind Guerrero Chapa.
Wearing a hoodie and a bandanna, Ismael Ramirez, known as Clorox because he used the brand to clean up his kills, slipped out of the backseat, walked past Guerrero Chapa's wife loading shopping bags and around the front of the Range Rover where his target sat unprotected. Then the shooting began.
When Ledezma Campano returned with their coffees, Ledezma Cepeda panicked and said, “They killed him! Let’s go, let’s go!”
Ledezma Campano later testified, “We were expecting to get shot, too.”
Instead El Gato hosted a big party in their honor when they returned to Mexico, offering as much beer as they could drink and rewarding them with cars and a hunting trip.
The DEA, FBI and Homeland Security agents spent 16 months conducting their own investigation. They collected bank account information, phone and email records and reports from confidential sources. License plate readers located along the border allowed them to track Ledezma Cepeda, Ledezma Campano and Cepeda Cortes' border crossings, and airline records revealed their numerous flights across the country.
Ledezma Cepeda and Ledezma Campano were crossing the border to do another job for El Gato in early September 2014 when they were detained and arrested by federal authorities. At the time of his arrest, Ledezma Cepeda was texting with El Gato, joking about the murder of a Monterrey attorney named Eliseo Martinez Elizondo.
Federal agents searched their car, found the other GPS trackers used in the murder-for-hire plot and asked the father about the devices. “If there is someone else who is in danger in this country, you need to tell us,” a DEA agent said.
“I’m a dead man,” Ledezma Cepeda replied.
Joey Cepeda stood in a hallway outside of U.S. District Judge Terry Means' courtroom in Fort Worth in early May 2016, waiting to testify on behalf of his father. He planned to give a powerful testimony to dispute Ledezma Campano's claims that his father, Cepeda Cortes, was knowingly involved in a “gruesome, dark cartel” plot.
Cepeda says his father called him each night of the trial to give him an update since he couldn't attend until after he testified. “The first thing they said is that I admitted to the stalking,” Cepeda Cortes told him in a recording of their phone call. “That's the first lie.”
But it wasn't necessarily a lie. When the FBI agent explained the definition of stalking in a Sept. 5, 2014, interview, Cepeda Cortes replied, “I guess that's what we did.”
Cepeda was upset that Ledezma Campano had changed his testimony from his initial claim that Cepeda's father didn't know about the plot and now said that he had asked for more money when he discovered who Guerrero Chapa was and for even more money when Clorox killed him.
“Been through a lot of bullshit with this, mijo,” Cepeda Cortes told his son during the trial in late April 2016. “A lot of things have been wrong in this case. The truth's going to get out, mijo. The truth is gonna get out.”
Some of the bullshit, he says, involved the forensic video analysis expert who wasn't allowed to testify on his behalf. A clinical audiologist who had testified for the ATF, DEA, FBI and IRS in the past, Dr. Al Yonovitz analyzed a camcorder of the exact make and model as the one FBI had used to record Cepeda Cortes. His test results showed the battery couldn't have died. “I expect to contrast the evidence recording to the test records and explain the significance of such differences,” he wrote in a March 11, 2016, letter to Cepeda Cortes' defense attorney.
Federal prosecutor Josh Burgess challenged Yonovitz's qualifications and the relevancy of his findings. The court agreed and Yonovitz wasn't allowed to testify.
In early May 2016, Cepeda Cortes' defense attorney Robert Rodgers came out of the courtroom and told the family that, to save the court time, Burgess had agreed to stipulate in his closing remarks that the rest of the witnesses, including Cepeda, claimed Ledezma Cepeda had tricked Cepeda Cortes and the family.
“All of us were all happy, and some of us were crying,” Cepeda says. “We didn't realize it was bait.”
Cepeda claims Burgess didn't stipulate it in his closing arguments. Instead he highlighted how the circumstantial evidence painted a picture of someone who should have known Guerrero Chapa would be murdered.
Burgess pointed out that Cepeda Cortes didn't contest the charge that he tried to delete emails related to his involvement in his cousin's investigation instead of contacting law enforcement.
Burgess also claimed that despite learning of his cousin's betrayal, Cepeda Cortes still planned to go into business with Ledezma Cepeda and open a sign shop in Monterrey after Guerrero Chapa's murder.
Back in McAllen, Joey Cepeda stands in front of his father’s colonial-style house down the block from where his father was arrested in early September 2014.
Cepeda’s father planned to restore the house when he retired from Verizon, but then got busy working at Decals by Design, a sign and computer repair shop in Rio Grande City, and learning to be a private investigator.
Cepeda Cortes' daughter Miriam stands next to her brother. As a representative for the Trump campaign in the Rio Grande Valley, she wanted to keep her father’s plight separate from her quest to get Trump elected. “Our family has been stained with this whole notion of the cartel,” she says. “Of course, they are not going to believe my dad because his [immigration] status is pending. The media is saying, ‘Oh, he is an illegal alien.’ No, he’s not. He’s a permanent resident. People need to understand that. I feel that there is this notion like a negative connotation toward that.”
The stain on their family also caused Cepeda Cortes' oldest sister, Rosa Madrigal, to became the target of an investigation. She has worked for the U.S. Border Patrol for nearly 30 years. Burgess charged her with providing confidential information to her brother. She was cleared of the charge.
“I knew I wasn’t guilty of that,” she says. “Still, it’s a nasty situation to be in because your coworkers kind of look at you like, ‘Why are you under investigation? Why aren’t you allowed into the intelligence briefings that you used to be allowed into?’ But if I didn’t have 100 percent knowledge and trust in my brother's innocence, I would say, ‘Sorry, brother, if you did the crime you’ve got to do the time.'”
Some people have warned the family not “to get the bear angry” by bringing unwanted attention to the cartels, but a son’s crusade for justice is a flame not so easily extinguished. Cepeda plans to continue his effort, reaching out to lawmakers, the media and watchdog groups but staying mindful of what his father said shortly after he was convicted in May 2016:
“Be careful of what you say, OK, because the last thing you want is egg on your face, Joey,” Cepeda Cortes warned from prison. “Don’t do what the FBI and the DEA and all these people have done, mijo, with my case, where they totally mischaracterized this whole thing.”