Brownsville man gets life sentence in drug smuggling case

A 40-year-old Brownsville man has been ordered to spend the rest of his life in federal prison after being found guilty of participating in a drug trafficking ring that moved over 2,000 pounds of cocaine from the Rio Grande Valley to other parts of the United States.

Authorities said Rafael Villanueva was responsible for smuggling drugs from the Valley to places such as Chicago, Houston and locations in Virginia and Georgia.

Villanueva appeared Thursday before U.S. District Judge Fernando Rodriguez Jr. where he was sentenced to life in prison. A federal jury on Jan, 28, 2020 convicted him of drug and bulk cash smuggling and money laundering charges.

Rodriguez 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), in a press release from the United State’s Attorney Office of the Southern District of Texas. “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.”

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

The witnesses said Villanueva also provided transportation for drug proceeds sold throughout the U.S. back to the Valley. The commercial vehicles were outfitted with special compartments to hide the cocaine and drug proceeds.

Authorities said 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 said he was only 16 when he started working for Villanueva.

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

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