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Mistrial in alleged cartel hit man's Texas case

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[February 05, 2010]  SAN ANTONIO (AP) -- Cocaine bundled in bricks, stacks of cash, bloody corpses and braggart hit men.

The evidence presented during a rare public trial of an alleged hit man for the Mexican Gulf Cartel offered what seemed like damning evidence of a drug cartel conspiracy.

HardwareBut Texas prosecutors offered only the word of two confessed killers and a grainy surveillance photo to link Gerardo Castillo Chavez, nicknamed "Cachetes" or "Cheeks" in Spanish, directly to a ruthless hit squad that kidnapped and killed people in Laredo in 2005 and 2006.

That evidence wasn't enough for jurors, who on Thursday acquitted Castillo of a gun charge and deadlocked on two others, leading U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez to declare a mistrial. A new trial was ordered to begin Feb. 19.

"The case brought a lot of publicity. The courthouse was surrounded by armed guards with machine guns, and there was a lot of pressure to convict. But this jury, they focused on the evidence in the case," said Roberto Balli, Castillo's attorney. "We feel that they can bring this case back to 20 juries and the result is going to be same."

Balli said his client was delighted and that they planned to look at their options, including possibly requesting a change of venue.

Authorities painted the cherub-faced 23-year-old Castillo as a midlevel thug working for the cartel. He was arrested at a stash house in Houston and investigators found him with cocaine on his nose -- but not with others indicted in the alleged conspiracy. Castillo, who was initially indicted under the name "Armando Garcia," was the only one of 16 defendants to take his case to trial. The others reached plea agreements.

His trial offered an uncommon public airing of the cartel's U.S. operations with two confessed hit men describing how they planned and carried out kidnappings and murders.

Authorities have indicted dozens of alleged cartel operatives along the U.S. border, but like those indicted with Castillo, most have reached plea agreements before any testimony offers insight into the operations that have turned Mexican border communities into drug battlegrounds and raised fears in their U.S. sister cities.

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During Castillo's eight-day trial, details of the Gulf Cartel's operations in Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, emerged through the testimony of the hit men and law enforcement recordings of hit squad leaders planning assassinations and bragging about kills in the area in 2005 and 2006.

Rosalio Reta, who admitted killing about 30 people on the orders of Gulf Cartel bosses, testified that Castillo had bragged about being part of a hit squad that pumped 100 bullets into a pickup truck driven by Jesus Maria "Chuy" Resendez, killing Resendez and his 15-year-old nephew in April 2006.

And a surveillance photo taken following a grenade attack on a nightclub in Monterrey, Mexico, appeared to show Castillo with Reta, but Castillo's sister testified at the trial that the man in photo was not her brother.

U.S. Attorney Tim Johnson said in a statement Thursday that his office was disappointed but respected the jury's decision.

"We stand ready to retry this case," he said.

[Associated Press; By MICHELLE ROBERTS]

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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