After pleading guilty to racketeering and money-laundering conspiracy… (PGR/AFP/Getty Images )
A federal judge sentenced Benjamin Arellano Felix to 25 years in prison Monday, rejecting a last-ditch plea by the former Mexican drug kingpin to reduce a punishment that has already been criticized as too lenient.
Arellano Felix's rambling statement in federal court provided an unexpected climax to a historic case that targeted the cartel that bears his family name, once Mexico's most powerful organized crime group. Arellano Felix admitted in a plea agreement in January that he headed the cartel that terrorized rivals and turned Tijuana into a major drug-trafficking corridor into the United States.
But he tried to back away from the agreement during the one-hour hearing, saying his sentence should be reduced by the prison time he served in Mexico and that his extradition violated international law. Speaking rapidly in Spanish in front of a packed courtroom, Arellano Felix deflected blame to underlings.
"They're accusing me of things others did and holding me responsible for those things," said Arellano Felix, dressed in orange prison garb and holding his uncuffed hands behind his back.
U.S. District Judge Larry Burns, cordial with Arellano Felix in previous hearings, forcefully dismissed the claims, calling him the "shot caller" for the organization. Burns noted that the sentence, negotiated between federal prosecutors and defense attorneys, was lighter than that of the lieutenants who took his orders.
"If I had it in my power, I would impose a longer sentence," Burns said.
Family members of victims and law enforcement officers have criticized the punishment as insufficient. The 60-year-old Arellano Felix could be in his early 80s when he's released from prison. He would immediately be deported to Mexico, where he has 22 years remaining on an existing prison term.
Laura Duffy, the U.S. attorney in San Diego, whose supervision of the case boosted her career, defended her decision to forgo a trial. Agents and prosecutors, spared from putting on a trial that could last months, can be redeployed to other cases, she said.
Duffy, who praised agents' sacrifice and dedication and said she understood their dissatisfaction, noted that Arellano Felix would probably die in prison, either in the U.S. or Mexico.
Arellano Felix pleaded guilty in January to racketeering and money-laundering conspiracy charges, admitting that the cartel imported hundreds of tons of drugs into the U.S., using the profits to bribe Mexican officials and outfit assassination squads. Investigators estimate that the cartel killed about 1,000 people during a roughly 16-year period.
He was arrested in Mexico in 2002 and extradited to San Diego last year. Last week, Arellano Felix switched attorneys, claiming that his original lawyer, Anthony Colombo, hadn't fully explained the consequences of the plea agreement. Assisted by his new attorney, Nicholas DePento, Arellano Felix then raised the claims that were rejected Monday.
Burns, a longtime San Diego resident, offered his own view of Arellano Felix's influence, saying that he was shocked two years ago to see so many shuttered businesses in downtown Tijuana, which was thriving when he visited in his student days. "The conduct of the [cartel] profoundly affected two countries," Burns said.