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Originally published Wednesday, April 20, 2011 at 9:12 PM

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Man arrested as Mexico cartel leader once lived in Yakima County

A man who Mexican authorities say is a leader in a violent drug cartel responsible for the deaths of more than 200 people once lived in Yakima County in the Tieton area, friends and acquaintances said Tuesday.

Yakima Herald-Republic

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YAKIMA — A man who Mexican authorities say is a leader in a violent drug cartel responsible for the deaths of more than 200 people once lived in Yakima County in the Tieton area, friends and acquaintances said Tuesday.

The man, identified as 34-year-old Martin Omar Estrada Luna, was arrested Saturday by the Mexican navy. Several other suspected members of Los Zetas drug cartel also were arrested.

Friends and acquaintances in the Yakima Valley say the man who was paraded before the Mexican media Sunday had plenty of run-ins with authorities here before being deported.

They and local law-enforcement officials said Tuesday the Estrada they knew was headed for trouble at a young age. He dropped out of school and took up a life of crime.

"Martin made his own choices. He went where the streets took him," said a close boyhood friend who works in Yakima and asked not to be identified.

"A career criminal"

Tieton Police Chief Jeff Ketchum said he has known Estrada since Ketchum started working for the Police Department in 1994, about a year after Estrada started racking up his first criminal charges in juvenile court.

"I would label Martin as a career criminal. He got away with a lot of stuff. He got named in a lot of stuff, but you could never pin it on him," Ketchum said.

Mexican authorities arrested Estrada in a house Saturday in Ciudad Victoria, the capital of the state of Tamaulipas in northeastern Mexico. But acquaintances and police officials question whether Estrada could have risen to a post as high in the cartel as Mexican authorities allege.

Mexican authorities, who put up a $1.2 million bounty for his arrest, said Estrada was one of the leaders of the Zetas' San Fernando cell, which they blame for killing more than 200 people found in mass graves in Tamaulipas.

Authorities there began uncovering bodies in mass graves in early April after reports that passengers were being pulled off buses at gunpoint in the township of San Fernando.

There has been speculation that the Zetas gang was forcibly recruiting extra members for its fight against the rival Gulf cartel over access to key drug-trafficking routes into the United States.

As of last week, 145 bodies had been found in 26 graves. San Fernando is the same place where 72 Central and South American migrants were found slaughtered last August.

It was unclear when Estrada, who was last deported in 2009, would have built such strong ties to one of Mexico's leading drug gangs.

"I can't see it, but who knows? I don't know what the investigation part of it established," Ketchum said.

Local records show Estrada falling into the gang life instead of making it to school with any regularity.

Acquaintances said he left the Highland School District well before he would have graduated in 1995. That year, he pleaded guilty to second-degree burglary in connection with the theft of a Ford Taurus from the district.

Ketchum said Estrada openly admitted to being a gang member, and court records show "El Kilo" as his nickname in the 1990s. The friend said Estrada picked up the nickname from a fragment of a lyric in a rap song by the late rapper Eazy-E.

Besides the burglary charge, his adult felony convictions in Yakima County involved a burglary and brandishing a knife in Tieton.

When he was sentenced in 2006 for an immigration violation, federal prosecutors pointed out that he had amassed 16 felony and misdemeanor convictions.

Records show he has multiple aliases, including Estrada-Delamora, the name he was charged under in federal court.

"Mr. Estrada-Delamora has not learned how to live in society without preying on others," an assistant U.S. attorney wrote in a request for a higher sentence.

Estrada was ultimately sentenced to 41 months for returning to the United States a third time after being deported twice before.

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said Tuesday that he was deported in 2009 from Reno, Nev., after completing his sentence.

The ICE database shows no contact with Estrada since that deportation.

Family still in state

However, the friend of Estrada's said that the last time they had contact, Estrada was living in Laredo, Texas, just across the border from Nuevo Laredo.

The friend said he encouraged Estrada to be a good person and to reconnect with his young daughters, who live in the Yakima Valley.

Estrada's ex-wife, who also lives in the Yakima area, declined to comment Tuesday. Other relatives could not be reached or did not respond to messages.

Regardless of his history and the accusations against him, the friend said Estrada had another side to him.

"He was a nice guy. He would let you borrow money, his car or his clothes," the man said.

But he said Estrada always wanted to be a leader, not a follower.

Ketchum said he occasionally checked a MySpace account believed to be Estrada's. Pictures there show a heavily tattooed Estrada, consistent with the memories of Ketchum and a Yakima County sheriff's deputy who once arrested him.

Information from The Associated Press was included in this story.

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