Rafael Cardenas Vela was arrested last week following a traffic stop in Port Isabel, a Gulf coast town that sits across the causeway from South Padre Island. He is charged with conspiracy to possess and distribute drugs and using a fraudulent passport, according to federal court records.
The law enforcement official familiar with the case told The Associated Press on Wednesday that authorities believe Cardenas Vela is the nephew of Osiel Cardenas Guillen and was a rising player in the cartel's operations. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the person wasn't authorized to speak publicly about the case. Cardenas Guillen was extradited to the U.S. in 2006 from Mexico and sentenced to 25 years in prison last year.
Angela Dodge, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Houston, said in an email that "we understand there is a familial relationship," but declined to comment beyond that.
A call to Cardenas Vela's attorney was not immediately returned.
According to court records unsealed this week, special agents from Homeland Security Investigations, a branch of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, interviewed Cardenas Vela after Port Isabel police made the traffic stop. Port Isabel Police said they did not make the arrest and do not write reports for traffic stops.
Initially Cardenas Vela presented a valid Mexican passport and U.S. visa under the name Pedro Garcia Gonzalez, but the agents determined that was not his true identity. He then admitted that he has been involved in the transportation and importation of marijuana and cocaine into the U.S. for several years. He told agents that two years ago he sold about five tons of marijuana to people he knew would import it into the U.S.
Cardenas Vela had been scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in Brownsville Wednesday afternoon, but his attorney waived his detention hearing Tuesday.
ICE officials did not immediately return calls requesting comment Wednesday.