SAN DIEGO — A former Mexican law enforcement official who worked closely with U.S. authorities on cross-border criminal investigations was sentenced Monday to more than eight years in prison for aiding Mexican drug traffickers.
Jesus Quinonez, 41, told a judge that what began as a well-intentioned relationship with an informant led him to make mistakes.
He faced a maximum possible sentence of life in prison for racketeering conspiracy, but prosecutors sought only eight years and one month as part of a plea agreement reached in May, as his trial was set to begin.
Quinonez was the international liaison for Baja California Attorney General Rommel Moreno, serving as his primary contact with U.S. state and local law enforcement agencies in an area that includes the border cities of Tijuana and Mexicali.
As part of the plea agreement, Quinonez admitted that he agreed to help smuggle $13 million into Mexico with a group headed by Fernando Sanchez Arellano, a nephew of the Arellano Felix brothers. He was working with a Sanchez Arellano lieutenant, Jose Alfredo Najera Gil, but the smuggling operation was never consummated.
Quinonez also admitted sharing information with a reputed Sanchez Arellano lieutenant, Jose Alfredo Najera Gil, about the investigation of a double homicide in Tijuana in March 2010. The murders were committed by the Sanchez Arellano gang, according to the plea agreement.
The Arellano Felix cartel was once one of the world's most powerful drug cartels, but its power began to erode in 2002 when its leaders began getting killed or captured.
"I'm sorry for being here," Quinonez told U.S. District Judge William Hayes, pausing for a deep breath before he spoke through an interpreter. "I ask for forgiveness from the government, from my family."
As he was led from the courtroom in a yellow jumpsuit, he turned to his family in the audience, smiled and blew them a kiss.
Quinonez and 42 others were charged in a far-reaching indictment targeting the Sanchez Arellano gang that relied on about 50,000 recorded telephone conversations. James Melendres, an assistant U.S. attorney, said 38 people have been convicted, one awaits trial and four are at-large.
The episode has been an embarrassment for Moreno, who took office in late 2007 when Tijuana was in the throes of a fierce battle between Sanchez Arellano and a rival that horrified residents with bodies hung from bridges, daytime shootouts and decapitated bodies found around town. Such gruesome displays of violence have largely disappeared in Tijuana since the Sinaloa cartel expanded its presence in the last few years.
Quinonez has been in custody since his arrest on a San Diego traffic stop in July 2010, less than a month after he attended a U.S. Independence Day party at the home of the U.S. consul general in Tijuana. He was arrested after meeting with San Diego police on one of his frequent cross-border trips.