Fall from grace
Misstep at UI was tipping point that plunged ‘Pepe' Rojas-Cardona into alleged life of crime in Mexico
© The Gazette
A former University of Iowa student leader believed to have fled the country after criminal charges in the early 1990s has been linked to murder and corruption in Mexico.
Juan Jose Rojas-Cardona — known as Pepe in West Liberty, where he spent his youth — is accused in a U.S. Consulate document made public in August of orchestrating the assassination of a rival casino owner in Monterrey, Mexico, and having ties to powerful Mexican drug cartels.
“Pepe Rojas along with his brother Arturo Rojas are the largest casino operators in the metropolitan area,” according to a July 2, 2009, diplomatic cable from the office of former U.S. Consul General Bruce Williamson. The cable was released Aug. 30 on the whistle-blower website WikiLeaks.
Iowans who knew Pepe Rojas-Cardona are having trouble reconciling the image of a corrupt and violent casino czar with the lifeguard, yearbook photo editor and student leader they remember.
“If what they are saying is right, I’m in complete shock,” said Greg Guinn, longtime West Liberty girls’ golf coach and former teacher.
However, a 1992 psychological evaluation — ordered by a probation officer — showed the smart, charismatic leader had “an exaggerated sense of self-worth” and did “not experience guilt or remorse for events that have happened in his life.”
Some say Rojas-Cardona’s misdeeds as a young man were warning signs of who he would become.
Immigrant family plants roots in Iowa
Rojas-Cardona was born Aug. 12, 1967, in Pachuca, Mexico, in the south-central part of the country.
His father, Javier Rojas, was recruited to move to Iowa in 1969 because of his skill as an electrician and mechanic, said Fred Loeb of Coralville, who worked as Javier Rojas’ supervisor at Oral B Laboratories.
The Rojas family became permanent, legal residents and settled in West Liberty, where the kids — six boys and three girls — were involved in activities including tennis, soccer, photography and volunteer work.
“He was a bright, friendly, kind person,” wrote the Rev. Greg Miller, a Catholic priest, in a 1992 letter supporting Rojas-Cardona. “I remember him as always being ready to help in church or community activities.”
Jim Viner, an Iowa City musician, graduated from West Liberty High School with Rojas-Cardona in 1985.
“All of them were good students,” Viner said of the Rojas family. “I think they were lifeguards.”
Rojas-Cardona’s graduation profile in the May 9, 1985, edition of the West Liberty Index said he was involved in Photography Club, Thespians, school plays, chorus, Science Club and was photo editor for the yearbook.
At that time, Rojas-Cardona had five siblings attending the UI — where he planned to go, too. He wanted to be a lawyer.
Rising to leadership
Rojas-Cardona enrolled in the UI in August 1985.
In early 1986, he and 17 other students founded Sigma Lambda Beta, a Latino-based social fraternity. The group, which has grown to 92 active chapters nationwide, includes Rojas-Cardona’s name on the website. He’s seen standing with 12 other founders in a photo posted on the fraternity’s Wikipedia profile.
Rojas-Cardona was elected vice president of the UI Student Senate in 1988. He ran for president in 1989, and his party, the Allied Student Advocacy Party, won on March 14, 1989, with more than 4,200 students voting, according to the UI’s Daily Iowan newspaper.
Rojas-Cardona’s clout grew in the fall of 1989 when the Student Senate organized a first-of-its-kind conference of student government leaders from all Big Ten universities.
The $50,000 corporate-sponsored event played host to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, then NCAA President Albert Witte and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, according to Gazette archives. Speakers were scheduled to talk about the importance of cultural diversity and the role of athletics at the university.
Martin Luther King III, who replaced Jackson on the program, told about 200 people during his keynote address that the UI event was “one of the most important conferences that could take place in this nation” and expressed hope that it would reignite student activism across the country, the DI reported.
In November 1989, Rojas-Cardona was elected chairman of the newly formed Big Ten Association, a multi-university group dedicated to raising awareness of civil rights issues.
Peter Nathan, who became a UI administrator in early 1990, said Rojas-Cardona wanted to stand out on campus.
“He was a distinctive personality, and it was important for him to be recognized as such,” said Nathan, a professor emeritus of psychology.
Questions over spending
Rojas-Cardona’s political party started drawing criticism in early 1990, when six UI students accused senate leaders of misspending. The UI conducted an internal audit that found student leaders spent money on extravagant trips and meals but cleared them of any wrongdoing, according to The Gazette.
“I’ve always known I’d be vindicated,” Rojas-Cardona said at the time. “We didn’t do anything wrong.”
The State Auditor’s Office wasn’t satisfied and conducted a more thorough review that found student leaders double-billed for meals and rented Cadillacs when university cars could have been used. The audit also showed student fees were used to buy alcohol.
UI officials, blamed by the state auditor for lack of oversight, decided Rojas-Cardona and others should repay nearly $2,000. Rojas-Cardona was disgraced on campus, kicked out of his fraternity and never graduated.
His troubles were just beginning.
On Sept. 30, 1991, Iowa City Police charged Rojas-Cardona with second-degree theft based on charges he wrote a bogus check for $3,000 to a man who helped him form a telemarketing firm.
Three months later, police tagged Rojas-Cardona with another theft charge and seven counts of forgery. He was accused of forging the names of seven of his employees to steal their paychecks, totaling $1,275.
Iowa City attorney Martin Diaz represented Rojas-Cardona on the second-degree theft charge.
“I liked Pepe and always thought he was a very nice man,” Diaz said. “If he did all good things, he would have a tremendous future.”
A Johnson County jury found Rojas-Cardona guilty of second-degree theft on Feb. 5, 1992, for the bogus check case. He was given a five-year prison term, but the time was suspended. When Rojas-Cardona was convicted in November 1992 of six counts of forgery and third-degree theft, however, the judge imposed the five-year prison term.
He posted bond while he appealed the convictions.
Rojas-Cardona’s court files, stored in faded red folders in a Johnson County outbuilding, show a young man trying to maintain his innocence and his status as a legal U.S. resident.
A copy of his resident alien card is included in the file, as is an application asking a judge to recommend Rojas-Cardona not be deported.
“There would be great hardship to the defendant and his family if he were forced to leave his adopted homeland, his only true country of residence,” states the document signed by Rojas-Cardona.
The court files also indicate Rojas-Cardona was suffering from mental illness.
His probation supervisor referred him for a psychological evaluation in 1992 at the UI’s Seashore Clinic, where Rojas-Cardona underwent four examinations, according to a probation violation report.
“The overall diagnosis that Seashore Clinic made was that Mr. Rojas-Cardona suffered from a personality disorder. The report indicated he had ‘an exaggerated sense of self-worth’ and ‘does not experience guilt or remorse for events that have happened in his life,’ ” the March 31, 1994, report states.
The probation officer recommended Rojas-Cardona be taken into custody for several reasons, including new criminal charges in New Mexico.
Just before 1 a.m. on Feb. 11, 1994, Rojas-Cardona was driving a rental car in Mexico, approaching the U.S. border near Orogrande, N.M., when he suddenly turned the car away from the checkpoint, according to a federal criminal complaint.
When a Border Patrol agent stopped Rojas-Cardona, he “acted very nervous when asked his citizenship. Rojas stated the reason he turned around short of the checkpoint was that he was talking on his portable phone to his brother and he wanted him to return to El Paso, Texas,” records state.
Drug dogs found 17 pounds of marijuana hidden throughout the car.
Fred Loeb remembers that day. He was facilities engineer at Oral B laboratory in Iowa City and answered the one phone call Rojas-Cardona could make from jail in New Mexico.
“He called me at the factory to get ahold of his dad,” Loeb said. “Our plant was eight and a half acres. I was worried they would hang up before I got (Javier Rojas) back (to the phone).”
Rojas-Cardona flees his past
Rojas-Cardona pleaded guilty June 15, 1994, to a federal charge of possessing drugs with intent to deliver, and prosecutors agreed that his prison time could be served in Iowa.
Rojas-Cardona never went to prison, though.
A Johnson County judge revoked Rojas-Cardona’s probation on Aug. 5, 1994, but extended his surrender date so that he could attend hearings in New Mexico.
Rojas-Cardona failed to turn himself in to the Johnson County Jail on Nov. 15, 1994, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. He was never found, and most Iowans who knew him believe he fled to Mexico.
Rojas-Cardona may have faced deportation anyway after serving prison time, Diaz said.
“He’s at risk,” Diaz said. “This is a group of people who are subject to a deportation to a country where they probably never spent more than two weeks.”
Finding a new life
How and when Rojas-Cardona got into the casino industry is unclear.
A Sept. 12 story in Proceso, a news magazine based in Mexico City, titled “Casinos Czar, A Sinister History,” describes Rojas-Cardona as a U.S. fugitive who tricked American entrepreneurs into bankrolling his early casinos. By Sept. 14, Internet reports show copies of the magazine were mysteriously bought in bulk at newsstands across Mexico to prevent the story’s circulation.
Rojas-Cardona arrived in Monterrey in 1999, the magazine reports, and by 2006 owned six casinos with hundreds of slot machines.
The Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, based in Michigan, alleged in a 2008 Arizona lawsuit that they entered into a deal with the Rojas-Cardona brothers in 2006 to build a new casino in Guadalupe, Mexico.
“He wined and dined the tribe and took them around on a private jet in 2006,” said Saba Bazzazieh, an Arizona attorney representing the tribe, which operates a casino on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
The tribe gave Rojas-Cardona $6.5 million for the new venture but never saw a return on the investment, Bazzazieh told The Gazette.
“In the end, they were left high and dry, and all the contracts were breached,” she said.
The case went to the Arizona Supreme Court, which ruled in 2010 that the tribe hadn’t used the right method for serving Rojas-Cardona and his business partners with the lawsuit. The suit has since been dismissed in the state’s Superior Court, but the tribe has appealed, Bazzazieh said.
Casinos connected to drugs, politicians
Gambling has boomed in Mexico in recent years.
Proceso has reported that the number of gambling enterprises went from 123 in 2000 to at least 790 in 2011. An estimated 12,000 people work in the industry.
Monterrey, the third-largest metro area in Mexico, has been the scene of escalating violence from rival drug cartels. Gunmen entered the city’s Casino Royale on Aug. 25, setting a fire that trapped patrons and killed more than 50 people.
“I follow the cartels, and they are extremely active in the casinos,” said George Grayson, a government professor at Virginia’s College of William & Mary. “The corruption in that segment of the economy is ubiquitous.”
Rojas-Cardona was in the middle of this web, according to the 2009 diplomatic cable released on WikiLeaks.
“A source familiar with casino operations in the area reported Ibarra was arrested after returning from a meeting with Juan Jose (‘Pepe’) Rojas Cardona, who is widely believed to have orchestrated Rogelio Garza (Cantu)’s assassination,” according to the cable.
Cantu, murdered in June 2009, was known as the “El Diablo” and “Czar of Strip Clubs” and owned a large casino and several strip clubs in the Monterrey area, the cable states.
“Since casino licenses are assigned by the federal government to specific individuals, Rodrigo (sic) Garza’s casino will no longer be able to operate, thus allowing the Rojas brothers to consolidate control of casinos in the Monterrey region,” the cable states.
The Rojas-Cardona brothers had close ties to the Beltran-Leyva drug cartel and to politicians in the National Action Party, according to the cable. Sources told the U.S. Consulate that the brothers illegally donated $5 million to two politicians and gave a helicopter and free advertising to a political candidate.
“The traffickers, the casino operators and corrupt politicians form a self-protective triangle, which makes it difficult for honest law enforcement officers to get at organized crime,” the cable states.
The U.S. State Department would not confirm the information included in the 2009 diplomatic cable.
“As a matter of policy, the Department of State does not comment on materials, including classified documents, which may have been leaked,” an official wrote to The Gazette in an email.
Several sources contacted for this story declined to be interviewed, citing fears of retribution.
Reaction to new allegations
An attorney for the Rojas-Cardona brothers’ casino business denied the claims of illegal political donations, according to a Sept. 7 article in Milenio, a national newspaper in Mexico.
Randy McCaskill, a Scottsdale, Ariz., attorney who represented Rojas-Cardona in the Arizona lawsuit, said his client wasn’t likely to return a call from The Gazette.
“I personally don’t think he has much interest in the U.S. anymore,” McCaskill said.
Javier and Arelie Rojas, who live in Iowa City, also declined an interview.
“I wish you people forget about it,” Javier Rojas said in a short phone conversation. “You hurt every time you talk about it.”
Many of the Iowans who knew Rojas-Cardona in West Liberty or at the UI have wondered what happened to him. Such a dynamic, driven leader isn’t likely to fade into the woodwork.
Former Provost Nathan, who was among UI officials criticized in 1990 for lack of oversight of student leaders, said he felt betrayed by the students’ actions. Now he looks at it as a psychologist.“The best predictor of current behavior is past behavior,” Nathan said. “What he did more than 20 years ago anticipated what he’s now charged with doing.”