SAN DIEGO -- Mexican gangster Francisco Javier Arellano Felix, the alleged boss of a family-run drug cartel thought to be responsible for scores of murders in Mexico and the U.S., pleaded guilty Monday to charges that will put him in prison for life without the possibility of parole.
Arellano Felix, who appeared wan and submissive, pleaded guilty to running a drug organization and money laundering. In exchange, federal prosecutors agreed to drop other charges and not seek the death penalty.
In a brief recitation to the judge, Arellano Felix's attorneys said their client had admitted that his Tijuana-based organization grossed $20 million a year from the smuggling and sale of hundreds of tons of cocaine and marijuana. Violence was a routine business practice, the attorneys told U.S. District Judge Larry A. Burns.
Burns set Nov. 5 for sentencing to allow for a probation report, although he noted that federal sentencing guidelines required him to sentence Arellano Felix to life in prison without parole. The report might be helpful if those guidelines were changed to allow parole for the charges to which Arellano Felix pleaded guilty, he said.
"I don't want to create any false hopes by pointing out that that possibility exists," Burns said.
Arellano Felix, 39, has been in federal custody since August 2006, when 30 heavily armed Coast Guardsmen boarded his fishing boat, the Dock Holiday, in international waters off the coast of Baja California.
U.S. drug agents had received a tip that the elusive Arellano Felix and others were deep-sea fishing. Ten people were aboard the boat, including three of Arellano Felix's children, ages 5 to 11.
As part of the plea bargain, Arellano Felix agreed to forfeit the boat, a 43-foot yacht, and $50 million in drug profits.
At its height in the 1990s, Arellano Felix's organization was believed to be supplying nearly half of the cocaine sold in the U.S.
The organization allegedly ordered the murder of a deputy police chief in Tijuana and the beheadings of three officers. In the crossfire of a shootout at Mexico's Guadalajara airport in 1993, Roman Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo was killed.
Arellano Felix, alleged to have had plastic surgery to mask his identity, was said to have frequently traveled to San Diego and enjoyed the local night life and shopping.
But any hint of bravado was gone Monday as he shuffled into court, shackled, wearing an orange prison jumpsuit and surrounded by U.S. marshals. Assistant U.S. Atty. Laura E. Duffy told Burns that a deal was struck Saturday after Department of Justice officials in Washington agreed to drop a request for the death penalty.
Also pleading guilty was Manuel Arturo Villarreal Heredia, 32, an assassin for the cartel and one of Arellano Felix's top lieutenants, who was aboard the Dock Holiday when the U.S. Coast Guard arrived.
Villarreal Heredia pleaded guilty to operating an illegal enterprise and conspiring to invest drug profits. He agreed to forfeit $5 million. In exchange for his guilty pleas, federal prosecutors agreed to recommend a sentence of 30 years in federal prison.
Karen Hewitt, acting U.S. attorney for Southern California, said that U.S. and Mexican authorities have dismantled the leadership of the cartel.
Arellano Felix assumed control of the cartel in 2002, according to federal prosecutors.
Under his control, cartel "soldiers" killed rival gangsters, kidnapped individuals for ransom, trained assassination squads and paid millions of dollars in bribes to government officials in Mexico, they said.
The cartel also "taxed" other criminal groups in Tijuana and Mexicali.
In Washington, Drug Enforcement Agency Administrator Karen P. Tandy said the guilty pleas have "driven a stake through the heart of one of the world's most powerful drug cartels."
Acting Deputy Atty. Gen. Craig S. Morford said Arellano Felix finally joined the list of convicted drug kingpins that included Gilbert and Miguel Rodriguez-Orjuella, both Colombian, and Afghan drug lord Mohammad Noorzai.
Arellano Felix eluded authorities for years despite a $5-million reward for information leading to his capture. He surrendered without a fight when the Coast Guardsmen boarded his boat.