MEXICO CITY — A federal judge in Texas on Thursday sentenced a Mexican gang leader to life in prison for ordering the 2010 murders of three people linked to the U.S. consulate in the border city of Ciudad Juarez.
The sentencing came two months after a jury convicted Arturo Gallegos Castrellon, 35, of ordering hit men from the Barrio Azteca street gang to carry out the killings.
The slayings deeply angered the U.S. government and led to steadily increased counter-narcotics assistance to Mexico that continues to this day.
In one of the slayings, Barrio Azteca gunmen laid siege to a white Toyota SUV, killing Lesley A. Enriquez, who worked at the consulate, and her husband, Arthur Redelfs, an employee of the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office in Texas. Both were U.S. citizens. The couple’s infant daughter was unharmed in the back seat. Enriquez was pregnant with a second child at the time of the shooting.
The family had just left the consulate compound on March 13, 2010, after attending a child’s birthday party when they were ambushed.
The third victim, Jorge Alberto Salcido, the husband of another consulate employee, had attended the same birthday party shortly before he was killed when gang members opened fired on his white Honda SUV. The couple’s two children, who were in the back seat, were wounded. Salcido was a Mexican citizen.
The motive for the killings was not clarified during Gallegos’ trial. An FBI agent testified that Gallegos had told him that the victims “were not intended targets.” A former Barrio Azteca gang member testified that he overheard radio chatter by gang leaders saying the slayings were “a mistake.”
In addition to conspiracy to commit murder and murder in a foreign country, Gallegos, a stocky native of the city of Chihuahua, was found guilty of several other crimes, including narcotics trafficking and money laundering. The February trial featured testimony that Gallegos had trained teams of hit men who gripped Ciudad Juarez in bloody savagery as part of a turf battle between the Juarez Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel, which was then trying to take control of the area’s smuggling routes.
From 2008 to 2010, hit teams that Gallegos directly supervised “killed up to 800 persons,” a Justice Department statement said.
“His gang of killers terrorized and victimized men and women on both sides of the border,” acting Assistant Attorney General David A. O’Neil said in a statement.
Barrio Azteca, a street and prison gang that emerged in the late 1980s, operates on both sides of the border. More than half a decade ago, it allied with a Ciudad Juarez gang known as La Linea, and both groups served as enforcers for the Juarez Cartel, which is also known as the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes trafficking group, trial testimony revealed.
By the turn of the decade, Ciudad Juarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, had become known as “Murder City,” tallying an average of 10 executions per day. By mid-2012, the drug war there had taken 10,000 lives, making it the city with the highest rate of homicides in the world.
In the past 18 months or so, however, violence has fallen as the Sinaloa Cartel appears to have secured control of the region.
In addition to handing Gallegos a life prison sentence, U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone in El Paso ordered him to pay restitution of more than $998,000 to his victims.
Michele Leonhart, the chief of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said in a statement that punishing killers of U.S. citizens is a high priority for Washington.
The conviction and life sentence of Gallegos “is a clear sign that the DEA, along with our law enforcement partners, will not tolerate those who attack Americans abroad and is committed to upholding the rule of law, protecting our citizens and bringing to justice the world’s worst criminals,” she said.