Pablo Vega Cuevas — who went from a delinquent in Aurora to a leader of a Mexican drug cartel — is now in an international spotlight for conversations in which he reportedly discussed the disappearance of 43 college students in Mexico in 2014.
A newspaper in Mexico has reported on the contents of conversations that U.S. officials intercepted from Vega’s BlackBerry devices. In one message, according to the report in Reforma, he said the presumed mass murder was bad for business.
Vega was a Chicago cell leader of Guerrero Unidos, and his brother was a founder, sources say. He’s being held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago, awaiting sentencing in federal court for transporting heroin from Mexico to the Chicago area in buses.
Charges filed in Chicago in late 2014 don’t link Vega to the disappearances, which cast a cloud of suspicion over the Mexican government. But transcripts, reported in Reforma, show he was in touch with cartel members in Mexico around the time the students disappeared.
“It’s f—– up, that’s going to cost us business,” Vega said on one of the recordings, according to an English translation of the Mexico City newspaper’s story.
Kate Doyle, director of the Mexico project of the National Security Archive, a private research group at George Washington University, said the transcripts are “hugely significant.”
“The texts appear to be full of information and new leads about what happened to the 43 students, so they could offer a major break in a case that’s been moribund for years,” Doyle says. “Where were the boys taken? What happened to them? And why has it taken so long for the government to solve the crime?”
The students were heading to Mexico City to commemorate the anniversary of a 1968 massacre when they disappeared on Sept. 26, 2014. The messages don’t reveal what happened but show the cartel might have targeted the students as being members of a rival cartel.
Vega initially says the “the shootout was against Los Rojos, that’s what they told me.” But on Sept. 28 he says, “Yeah, that’s it, it’s screwed up, they didn’t know how to control their people. It’s screwed up. It’s gonna create a mess.” Vega also discusses a higher number of dead than previously reported — “50 young guys disappeared.”
Vega’s lawyer, Robert Rascia, said Wednesday, “Unequivocally, Mr. Vega has absolutely nothing to do with what, if anything, happened to those students.”
Vega, 43, grew up in Aurora, where he and his brother Marco Vega Cuevas attended high school in the 1990s but didn’t graduate. They did graduate from committing small-time crimes to importing millions of dollars of heroin into the United States, according to sources in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
They say Marco Vega was a founder of Guerrero Unidos, a murderous drug cartel based in the Mexican state of Guerrero, where Acapulco is located. After he died, Pablo Vega became a top leader, they say.
Guerrero Unidos is among a handful of cartels that filled a vacuum created in Chicago after Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was captured in Mexico in early 2016. Guerrero Unidos, Jalisco New Generation, Los Zetas, Los Rojos and Colima all stepped up drug shipments to Chicago.
Of those, Guerrero Unidos is the only one started by Chicago-area guys.
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Pablo was 20 and Marco 16 when they got in trouble for the first time with police. Pablo wasn’t big — 5-foot-4 and 125 pounds — but acted as the muscle for his brother.
On Sept. 14, 1995, Marco used foul language in front of a girl. Her boyfriend chased him home. Marco returned with Pablo, who held the boy while Marco hit him in the head with a club, according to a police report. Pablo got court supervision, and Marco was referred to juvenile court.
At 20, Marco was arrested after police seized 12 pounds of marijuana and $25,795 from a home in Aurora. He forfeited the money to the police, but his attorney persuaded a judge to drop the criminal case because Marco supposedly didn’t live in the home.
Another future Guerrero Unidos founder who lived in Chicago, Mario Casarrubias, served nine months in state prison in 2005 for illegal gun possession.
After prison, Casarrubias took off for Mexico, where he was a narcotics coordinator for a cartel, the Beltran-Leyva Organization, sources say. But when police seized a drug shipment he was overseeing, his cartel bosses put a hit on him. Around 2011, he quit the cartel and founded Guerrero Unidos with his brother Angel Casarrubias and Marco Vega.
The cartel’s trouble with the DEA began on Aug. 21, 2013, when authorities seized $200,000 in cash from a courier for the cartel. They searched the courier’s home in Chicago and found another $231,000 in cash, a dozen kilos of heroin and nine kilos of cocaine, according to a federal complaint. Through that bust, DEA agents developed an informant who led them to the Vega brothers.
Marco Vega drowned in a lake in Mexico on March 20, 2014, at 35, supposedly trying to save his wife after she fell in.
Pablo Vega became the Chicago-area cell leader for the cartel, federal prosecutors have said.
On April 28, 2014, Vega — nicknamed “The Transformer” — was caught on a wiretap talking with Mario Casarrubias about a shipment of drugs from Mexico to Aurora.
“What’s going on, buddy? Have they made the delivery yet?” Casarrubias asks.
Casarrubias, nicknamed “The Handsome Frog,” instructs Vega to deliver two kilos of heroin wrapped in orange tape and bearing the stamp of an iguana — along with a third, unmarked kilo. Days later, Mexican authorities arrested Casarrubias in Mexico.
Early that fall, the students disappeared.
Federal officials in Mexico have said the mayor of Iguala ordered the abduction to prevent them from protesting against him and his wife. Iguala cops allegedly turned over the students to cartel members, who killed them and burned their bodies at a trash dump. Almost no evidence of the bodies was found except for a bone fragment that human-rights investigators now believe was planted.
The mayor, his wife and the police chief were arrested with dozens of cops and cartel members, including one of Mario Casarrubias’ brothers, Sidronio.
But journalists and human-rights investigators have challenged the official narrative. They found evidence that federal police and soldiers were present during the roundup of students and might have been involved. They also say the students may have unwittingly been on a bus loaded with the cartel’s heroin and destined for Chicago.