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But Valdez had slipped away again — this time across the Gulf of Mexico.
Salt water sprayed Valdez as a 36-foot speedboat's three 400-horsepower engines sliced through the swells along the Yucatán Peninsula's coastline. Valdez and two other Cubans stood guard over their prisoner.
"I'll give you $20 million if you let me go," the captive begged. The Cubans ignored him.
About 40 miles off the coast of Cuba, the captain turned off the motors. He radioed his contact, a Fort Lauderdale-based DEA agent named Vincent Williams. About 20 minutes later, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter met up with the Cubans, who handed over their hostage.
Valdez and his goon squad were feeling good. They expected a huge payday after pulling off an operation notable for its sheer audacity and its support from Uncle Sam. Instead — if Mexican newspapers, TV journalists, and a former DEA agent are to be believed — the scheme turned into a fiasco.
The brazen crime began when Valdez and a crew of Cuban human traffickers based in Cancún were recruited to pull off a daring mission, says ex-DEA agent Shedd. "These gangsters have loose affiliations with one another," he says. "Sometimes they work together. Sometimes they don't."
It is not clear precisely when Valdez arrived in Cancún, but several Mexican news outlets reported state police had arrested him, a smuggler named Adam Meza, and seven other Cubans on October 23, 2010, on human smuggling charges. Francisco Alor Quezada, the attorney general for the state of Quintana Roo, told reporters the Cubans were part of a ring transporting migrants on a speedboat that had been stolen from a Marathon dock three months earlier.
After cops arrested Meza, who is dark-skinned and sports a faux Mohawk, he led police to a hotel room where the migrants were stashed. The stolen 33-foot Hydra-Sports craft was docked outside. Later that afternoon, Valdez drove up to the hotel with a man dressed in a Mexican federal police uniform. They were both taken into custody. "They were all charged with human trafficking," Quezada told reporters. "Unfortunately, Meza and Valdez bribed a prison guard to get them out before they could stand trial."
Details of what came next are laid out in an extraordinary TV interview that aired August 3, 2011, on Univision. In it, two of Valdez's alleged accomplices relayed their wild tale for reporter Gerardo Reyes.
Looking to claim a $5 million reward, the Cubans hatched a plot to nab Heriberto Lezcano Lezcano, then the head honcho for Los Zetas, the brutal Mexican cartel started by corrupt former special forces soldiers. Meza and the alleged mastermind, who remained anonymous in Univision's interview, told Reyes they wanted to tell their story because the DEA stiffed them on the bounty.
The anonymous ringleader described how it took more than a year for his crew, including Valdez, to infiltrate the Zetas. They gained the cartel's trust by organizing five drug deals. During one of those deals, they met the man they claimed was Lezcano. They also provided emails they say came from Williams, the DEA agent, in which he discussed when to make their move as well as the $5 million reward.
The ringleader told Reyes it was a harrowing mission. "It wasn't easy at all to gain their trust," the man said of Los Zetas. "We had to be very careful and patient."
The men were hazy about exactly how they snatched Lezcano — a man whose torture methods earned him the nickname "the Executioner." But in early July 2011, they said, they manhandled him onto the boat and sped away to rendezvous with the DEA. As they motored across the Gulf with their captive, Williams radioed that a P-3 Orion surveillance craft was tracking their position. "I can't see the plane," the ringleader recounted. "Williams told me: 'Don't worry — they see you.' "
That's how the U.S. Coast Guard cutter found them, the anonymous leader told Reyes. When the Cubans boarded the cutter and turned over their hostage, Williams exclaimed, "It's not him. It's not Lezcano." The DEA refused to pay up.
But Meza told Reyes he was certain they got the right guy because within days of the kidnapping, the DEA and Mexican national police nabbed several high-ranking Zetas. "Lezcano must have told the DEA where to find them," Meza insisted.
The story, which received wide play in the Mexican media, is difficult to verify. At least one cartel expert doesn't believe the bold kidnapping happened as the men described it on television. "I don't find them credible," says J. Jesús Esquivel, a correspondent for Mexican magazine Proceso and author of the book La DEA en México.
He notes the DEA is more likely to use Mexicans, Colombians, or Central Americans as confidential informants than Cubans. "The Cuban criminal organizations are on the periphery as far as doing business with the cartels," Esquivel says. "They are not directly involved in cartel activities."
What's more, a year after the operation, on October 7, 2012, the Mexican government reported that Lezcano had been killed in a police shootout in the state of Coahuila.
But Shedd, citing his contacts in the DEA, says he believes Valdez and his crew definitely kidnapped someone high in the Zetas' leadership and then delivered him into U.S. custody. "It wasn't Lezcano," he says. "But it was someone important who is probably now in the witness protection program."