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MEXICO UNDER SIEGE

Top lieutenant in drug cartel pleads guilty

The wealthy Tijuana businessman helped the Arellano Felix brothers smuggle hundreds of tons of cocaine and marijuana into the United States. He faces five to 40 years in prison.

October 16, 2009|Richard Marosi

SAN DIEGO — A top lieutenant in the Arellano Felix drug cartel in Tijuana pleaded guilty Thursday to drug conspiracy charges, the latest member of the once-powerful organized crime group to now face a long U.S. prison sentence.

Jesus "Chuy" Labra Aviles, a wealthy, 62-year-old businessman who helped the Arellano Felix brothers smuggle hundreds of tons of cocaine and marijuana into the United States in the 1980s and '90s, was scheduled to go to trial in November, but changed his plea at a brief hearing in San Diego.

The short, balding Labra was flanked by two U.S. marshals and seemed at ease as he responded in Spanish to questions from U.S. Magistrate Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo. He used reading glasses to review his plea agreement and answered in a clear voice "si senora" to several of the judge's questions.

Labra's trial would have provided the first glimpse into the U.S. government's enormous case against the organization, which was more than 20 years in the making and featured other major cartel figures as potential witnesses.

Labra, who faces five to 40 years in prison, is scheduled to be sentenced in January.

He was arrested in 2000 while watching his son's soccer game in Tijuana and was extradited last year. In his guilty plea, Labra admitted to conspiring to import hundreds of tons of cocaine and marijuana and paying millions of dollars in bribes to Mexican government and law enforcement authorities.

Labra's career exemplified the emergence of Mexican organized crime groups as major drug traffickers into the U.S. A long-established marijuana smuggler, Labra was perfectly positioned when Colombian cocaine producers went searching for Mexican partners in the 1980s and early '90s. The U.S. government had blocked their traditional trafficking routes through the Caribbean and they were seeking other ways to smuggle their product into U.S. markets.

"He was like a senior advisor and a connections guy," said John Kirby, a former federal prosecutor who worked on the case. "He was moving a lot of marijuana through, and then when cocaine routes shifted, he was the natural go-to guy because he knew how to get the drugs across the border."

Labra teamed with the Arellano Felix brothers -- Benjamin, the cartel leader; and Ramon, the enforcer -- to provide access by smuggling the drugs into California through border crossings in San Diego and Calexico.

While Benjamin and Ramon coordinated logistics and eliminated rivals, Labra, who was older and possessed more business polish than his partners, cultivated more connections with Colombian traffickers and Mexican law enforcement.

Labra spent millions of dollars bribing federal, military and government authorities in Mexico to provide information and derail investigations against cartel members, according to his plea agreement.

Some of Labra's decisions helped transform the ways Mexicans smuggle drugs into the country. After a U.S. border inspector in 1990 found nearly 4 tons of cocaine inside the tires of a tractor-trailer truck, the organization started breaking up shipments into smaller amounts.

That shotgun-style approach, which usually involves less than 50 kilos at a time, is still the preferred smuggling method today. The smaller shipments reduce the risk of large seizures and complicate efforts of U.S. law enforcement to stop drug flows.

The U.S. and Mexican governments' offensive against the cartel has all but decimated the organization, which splintered in recent years after lieutenants began battling for control.

Benjamin Arellano Felix and his brother Eduardo are in Mexican prisons and are being sought for extradition by U.S. authorities. Ramon was killed in a shootout in 2002. Another brother, Javier, was sentenced in 2007 to life in prison.

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richard.marosi@latimes.com

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