Valley drug trafficking organizer gets life in prison

Published 11:33 am Thursday, April 29, 2021

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BROWNSVILLE, Texas – A 40-year-old resident of Brownsville has been ordered to federal prison following his role in trafficking more than 1000 kilograms of cocaine involving $26 million in drug proceeds, announced Acting U.S. Attorney Jennifer B. Lowery.

The jury deliberated for less than three hours before convicting Rafael Villanueva Jan. 28, following a six-day trial.

Today, U.S. District Judge Fernando Rodriguez Jr., who presided over the trial and sentencing, ordered Villanueva to serve the rest of his life in federal prison. The court also ordered Villanueva to pay a $1,193,070 money judgment as repayment for the drug money he illegally laundered.

“This sentencing is the result of a long-term complex investigation lead by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies who continue to serve and protect our public and national security said Deputy Special Agent in Charge Timothy Tubbs of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). “HSI and our counterparts will continue to protect our nation from transnational criminal organizations that seek to bring harm to our communities and our nation.”

“The sentencing of Villanueva demonstrates how we focus investigative resources against drug trafficking organizations that import large shipments of hard drugs from Mexico then deliver them to cities throughout the United States,” said Special Agent in Charge Daniel C. Comeaux of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). “DEA and our partners remain determined to identify, dismantle and destroy drug trafficking organizations that import and spread their poison in cities across our nation.”

During trial, the jury heard from approximately 21 witnesses. They detailed Villanueva’s role as head of a drug transportation group that moved cocaine from the Rio Grande Valley and on to cities throughout the United States. He had customers in Mexico who needed transportation for cocaine to areas throughout the United States, including Houston; Chicago, Illinois; Jackson, Mississippi; as well as locations in South and North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia.

He also provided transportation for drug proceeds sold throughout the United States back to the Rio Grande Valley. The commercial vehicles were outfitted with special compartments to hide the cocaine and drug proceeds.

Several witnesses testified Villanueva hired them to move the cocaine north and the drug proceeds south. Villanueva paid them by the kilogram to transport the drugs and a percentage of the drug money coming south. Fellow drug traffickers also testified Villanueva borrowed their line of transport for the cocaine when commercial drivers he hired got arrested with loads of cocaine.

One of the witnesses was a young male who was only 16 when he started working for Villanueva.

The jury also heard about the search of Villanueva’s house where authorities found five guns and numerous documents showing his lavish lifestyle as well as several Lone Star cards.

The defense attempted to convince the jury the witnesses were all liars and authorities did poor work.

The jury ultimately found him guilty as charged for possession with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine and conspiracy to do so, conspiracy to launder monetary instruments, bulk cash smuggling and international money laundering.

Villanueva has been and will remain in custody pending transfer to a U.S. Bureau of Prisons facility to be determined in the near future.

Several others have also been convicted for their respective roles.

HSI and DEA conducted the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) operation known as La Camelia. OCDETF identifies, disrupts and dismantles the highest-level criminal organizations that threaten the United States using a prosecutor-led, intelligence-driven, multi-agency approach. Additional information about the OCDETF Program can be found on the Department of Justice’s OCDETF webpage.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Karen Betancourt, Jody Young and Paul Marian prosecuted the case.