By Jared Taylor
MCALLEN, Texas (Reuters) - A reputed drug cartel boss from Mexico pleaded guilty to immigration and weapons charges in U.S. federal court on Monday, the day before he was due to go on trial.
Jose Luis Zuniga Hernandez, 43, admitted to his role as a leader in the Gulf Cartel, a Mexican drug gang suspected of involvement in the shooting of a Texas lawman, hours after U.S. Border Patrol agents arrested him near Brownsville in October, court records show.
Zuniga Hernandez, also known as "El Wicho," was captured carrying a gold-plated .38-caliber pistol studded with diamonds and rubies that spelled out his nickname, prosecutors said in a statement released on Monday.
He was one of several high-ranking Gulf Cartel figures arrested last year in South Texas, where they were believed to be seeking refuge from internal gang warfare sparked by the September murder of a top cartel leader in Mexico, law enforcement officials have said.
A Hidalgo County Sheriff's deputy was shot in late October when he pulled over a vehicle containing a person kidnapped by cartel members. The deputy's bulletproof vest saved his life, but local authorities said it marked a turning point in spillover violence from Mexico.
Border Patrol agents found Zuniga Hernandez alongside four other men near Santa Maria, Texas, a dusty village less than a mile from the Rio Grande at the southern tip of the Lone Star state. Beyond the gold-plated gun, agents seized four bags of cocaine and about $20,000 in cash from him.
Zuniga Hernandez offered to give his lavish weapon to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent who interrogated him, saying he "was a commander of many men, just like he was," federal court records state.
Agents declined to accept the gift, and Zuniga Hernandez told them "not to worry and smiled," prosecutors wrote in the court documents.
Zuniga Hernandez's lawyer filed a motion seeking to throw out statements his client made to federal agents following his arrest, court records show.
"Zuniga was told that if he did not cooperate and confess, he would be immediately deported to Mexico to face a certain death," defense attorney Guillermo Vega Jr. wrote.
But a federal judge denied the attorney's request.
Zuniga Hernandez was previously convicted of federal drug charges in 1990 and deported from the United States in 1997. He has been in federal custody since his arrest October 26, 2011.
Sentencing in his latest case was set for April. He faces up to 20 years in prison on the illegal reentry conviction and a maximum 10-year term for being an illegal alien in possession of a firearm. Each charge carries a fine of up to $250,000.
The Gulf Cartel has battled its former paramilitary wing, Los Zetas, across northeastern Mexico since the two groups split in early 2010. More than 46,000 people have died since Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched an army-led offensive against drug traffickers five years ago.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Bohan)