SAN DIEGO — Mexican drug kingpin Benjamin Arellano Felix pleaded guilty Wednesday to racketeering and conspiracy to launder money, avoiding the spectacle of a trial for the leader of a cartel that once smuggled hundreds of tons of cocaine and marijuana into the United States and dissolved bodies of its rivals in vats of lye.
Under an agreement with federal prosecutors, Arellano Felix, 58, can be sentenced to no more than 25 years in prison – a lighter punishment than ordered for lower-ranking members of his once-mighty, Tijuana-based cartel.
Prosecutors agreed to dismiss other charges that could have brought 140 years in prison if he was convicted.
The half-hour hearing was an anticlimactic finish to the U.S. government's pursuit of one of the world's most powerful drug bosses during the 1990s. His cartel, with its iron-tight grip on the drug trade along California's border with Mexico, was portrayed in the Steven Soderbergh film "Traffic" but has struggled in recent years as other cartels have become more ruthless than ever.
Laura Duffy, the U.S. attorney in San Diego who built much of her career on the case, said Arellano Felix will likely spend the rest of his life in U.S. prison but did not elaborate on the reasoning for the plea deal.
"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," Duffy said.
Arellano Felix stood attentively in court, acknowledging his guilt as U.S. District Judge Larry Burns recited parts of a 17-page plea agreement. He told the judge that he has been suffering migraine headaches almost daily but that the problem didn't impair his judgment to accept the plea agreement.
Anthony Colombo Jr., Arellano Felix's attorney, said his client could be released from U.S. prison in 20 years if credited for time served in this country and good behavior, assuming he gets the maximum 25-year sentence. As a Mexican citizen, he would then be deported to Mexico, where he still has nine years left on a sentence for related crimes.
Colombo said the government may have agreed to the deal to avoid having to bargain with 21 potential government witnesses for reduced sentences in exchange for their testimony. They also may have wanted to avoid a lengthy trial.
"They have to consider years and years of litigation, plus the expense, is avoided by this resolution," Colombo told reporters.
John Kirby, a former federal prosecutor who co-wrote the 2003 indictment against Arellano Felix, said the case rested entirely on cooperating witnesses, instead of wiretaps or physical evidence. He said those cases weaken over time as witnesses die, get into more trouble or change their minds about testifying.
"This kind of case is based solely on witness testimony, and it slowly disintegrates," Kirby said. "Maybe from the time when we put it together and now, it's not such a great case anymore."
The cost of a trial was unlikely to have influenced prosecutors, Kirby said.
"The government doesn't care about the expense, the government cares about winning," he said.
Francisco Javier Arellano Felix, a younger brother who led the cartel after Benjamin was arrested in Mexico in 2002, was sentenced in San Diego to life in prison in 2007, a year after he was captured by U.S. authorities in international waters off Mexico's Baja California coast. Jesus Labra Aviles, a lieutenant under Benjamin Arellano Felix, was sentenced in San Diego to 40 years in prison in 2010.
Benjamin Arellano Felix was extradited from Mexico in April 2011 to face drug, money-laundering and racketeering charges, one of the highest-profile kingpins to face prosecution in the United States.
The U.S. indictment said Arellano Felix was the top leader of a cartel he led with his brothers, going back to 1986. It says the cartel tortured and killed rivals in the United States and Mexico as it smuggled Mexican marijuana and Colombian cocaine.
"He was the top of the chain," Kirby said. "The brothers were at the top, and he was at the very top. He had the final say ... He was like the CEO of the operation."
The cartel began to lose influence along California's border with Mexico after Arellano Felix was arrested in 2002. A month earlier, his brother, Ramon, called the cartel's top enforcer, died in a shootout with Mexican authorities.
Benjamin Arellano Felix was incarcerated in Mexico after his 2002 arrest and was later sentenced to 22 years in prison on drug trafficking and organized crime charges.
Arellano Felix also agreed to forfeit $100 million, a figure that will be difficult for the government to collect.
"Whether there is anything out there that (the government) can seize, I don't know," Colombo said.
Sentencing was set for April 2.