Benjamin Arellano Felix, who headed a once-mighty drug cartel that came… (Mexico attorney general's…)
Reporting from San Diego -- Former drug kingpin Benjamin Arellano Felix pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal racketeering and money-laundering conspiracy charges, marking the end of a decade-old case that targeted what once was Mexico's most powerful organized crime group.
Arellano Felix, 58, the former leader of the Arellano Felix drug cartel, transformed Tijuana into a major trafficking corridor into the U.S. during a 16-year reign that ended with his arrest in Mexico in 2002.
The organization, also known as the Tijuana cartel, poured tons of drugs into California and generated profits that fueled a criminal empire that terrorized rivals, partnered with corrupt Mexican law enforcement officials and funded flashy lifestyles that became the template for Hollywood depictions of Mexican organized crime.
At the hearing, Arellano Felix wore orange jail garb as he stood next to his attorney and responded to questions in Spanish. As in previous hearings, U.S. District Judge Larry Burns allowed Arellano Felix's hands to be uncuffed, though a U.S. marshal stood close behind him.
Arellano Felix, according to the plea agreement reached with federal prosecutors in San Diego, admitted that the organization he headed generated hundreds of millions of dollars in profits, exchanged weapons for drugs from a rebel group in Colombia and trained squads to assassinate rivals and potential witnesses.
Arellano Felix, who was extradited from Mexico in April, faces a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison, according to the agreement. He stands to get a lesser potential sentence than several underlings in the organization, including his brother Javier, who got a life term.
The lighter potential sentence — he faced up to 140 years in prison if he had been convicted on all of the original counts — baffled many legal observers and law enforcement officials.
Under terms of the extradition agreement with Mexico, Arellano Felix is not subject to the death penalty, but many expected the kingpin to receive a life sentence. Federal prosecutors declined to answer questions about the case until the sentencing hearing, which is scheduled for April.
Legal experts and attorneys said the government's case was marred, perhaps, by the lengthy period it took to get the kingpin into a U.S. courtroom. Witnesses may have disappeared, died or decided against testifying, they said.
Anthony E. Colombo Jr., the San Diego-based defense attorney for Arellano Felix, said there was no evidence that witnesses were fearful.
Any accusations from nearly two dozen witnesses, many of them criminals currently in prison, would have been aggressively challenged, he said, because they would have testified in exchange for reduced sentences.
The potential witnesses against Arellano Felix were a who's who of the cartel's upper hierarchy, including Ismael and Gilberto Higuera-Guerrero, who were key lieutenants, and Jesus Labra-Aviles, a longtime smuggler. All of the men were sentenced to at least 30 years in prison.
Arellano Felix could serve as little as 20 years, Colombo said, though he would then be deported to Mexico, where he still has charges pending.
John Kirby, a former federal prosecutor who worked on the case, speculated that the evidence against Arellano Felix may have gone stale.
"All I can think of is that the case sat for too long," he said. "It wasn't as good as when we indicted."
Still, the government's plea deal shocked him.
"I am surprised," Kirby said, "I think [Arellano Felix] was sold a little short … in relation to what he did. He was a ruthless killer, and we don't even know how many deaths."
Arellano Felix was considered a criminal mastermind whose blend of ruthless ambition and sophisticated business dealings became a prototype for modern Mexican organized crime bosses.
Originally from Sinaloa, Arellano moved to Tijuana in the 1980s and within years had taken control of the criminal underworld along with his brother Ramon, a feared enforcer.
The organization pioneered the use of paramilitary-style tactics to intimidate enemies, amassing arsenals that included .50-caliber machine guns and using armored cars equipped with oil and smoke dispensers to evade arrest.
The cartel also recruited gang members from San Diego who were trained by Middle Eastern mercenaries, said Nathan Jones, an adjunct lecturer at the University of San Diego who wrote his dissertation on the history of the organization.
The cartel was "one of the first to start recruiting San Diego street gang members. That led to a long-term connection between gangs in San Diego and the Tijuana cartel that continues to this day," Jones said.
The impact of Arellano Felix's reign is still felt by scores of family members of victims who disappeared during the cartel's heyday. The cartel regularly used chemicals to dispose of enemies and disintegrated bodies by dumping them into vats of lye and acid.
As part of the plea agreement, four of the five counts in the original indictment were dismissed. Arellano Felix pleaded guilty to two charges: racketeering and conspiracy to launder monetary instruments. He also agreed to forfeit $100 million, according to the agreement.
In a prepared statement, Laura Duffy, the U.S. attorney in San Diego, called the guilty plea historic.
"Arellano-Felix led the most violent criminal organization in this part of the world for two decades. Today's guilty plea marks the end of his reign of murder, mayhem and corruption, and his historic admission of guilt sends a clear message to the Mexican cartel leaders operating today: The United States will spare no effort to investigate, extradite, and prosecute you for your criminal activities."