PHOENIX — A man has pleaded no contest to a murder charge in the beheading of a man in Arizona who police say had stolen drugs from a Mexican drug cartel.
Crisantos Moroyoqui-Yocupicio, 39, made the plea Monday to second-degree murder in the death of 38-year-old Martin Alejandro Cota-Monroy at an apartment in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler on Oct. 10, 2010. Sentencing for Moroyoqui-Yocupicio, who faces 10 to 16 years in prison, is set for May 8.
Police believe Cota-Monroy's gruesome killing was intended to send a message that anyone who betrays the traffickers will get the same treatment. The case has been cited as an extreme example of Mexican cartel violence spilling over the border.
Mexico has been plagued by decapitations in the drug war against cartels. Headless bodies have been dangled from bridges by their feet, severed heads have been sent to victims' family members and government officials, and bags of heads have been dropped off in high-profile locations.
The Arizona beheading also factored into the state's contentious immigration debate.
A month before the beheading, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer drew criticism for claiming that headless bodies were being found in the Arizona desert as she sought to bolster her argument for confronting the state's immigration woes. She later backtracked on those claims, but said such violence in the broader border region is cause enough for alarm.
George W. Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., said he isn't aware of any other cartel-related beheadings in the United States and noted that cartel killings in the U.S. are rare, because bosses of the criminal groups don't want to draw attention from American authorities.
Ramona Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Arizona, said the state hasn't seen a cartel killing in the last few years and is experiencing fewer cases of smugglers stealing trafficking loads from each other.
Arizona has served as a hub for immigrant and drug smugglers for many years. Forty-four percent of all marijuana seizures near the nation's borders were made in the Border Patrol's Tucson sector from October 2011 through September 2012.
Sanchez said such drug rip-offs are now infrequent in Arizona, while it the past they were somewhat common.
"There are consequences to be paid," Sanchez said of drug rip-offs. "Those kinds of issues aren't resolved in a court. They are resolved with violence."
A police report that cites Border Patrol intelligence said Cota-Monroy had stolen 400 pounds of marijuana and some meth from the PEI-Estatales/El Chapo drug trafficking organization.
Chandler police said Thursday that they couldn't confirm whether PEI-Estatales/El Chapo is the Sinaloa cartel and referred all questions to the FBI, which didn't immediately return calls.
However, police added that the homicide was the focus of their investigation and not the connection to any cartel.
Cota-Monroy told the cartel that the Border Patrol had seized the drugs, but the cartel learned the truth and hired men to kidnap and kill him in Nogales, Mexico.
But Cota-Monroy was able to talk his way out of being killed, saying he'd pay back the money and use his house for collateral, the report said. It turned out that the house wasn't Cota-Monroy's, and he fled to the Phoenix area, leading the cartel to hire assassins to go to Arizona, befriend Cota-Monroy and kill him.
Moroyoqui-Yocupicio, a day laborer who had been living in the apartment complex where the killing occurred, is the only man to be charged in Cota-Monroy's death.
Three men who were with Cota-Monroy around the time of his death are believed to have fled to Mexico. Jerry Cobb, a spokesman for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, which prosecuted the case, said Thursday no witnesses or evidence definitively placed the three men at the scene of the murder.
The police report said a rival drug cartel, the Beltran-Leyva organization, was possibly planning on killing the three men. Cota-Monroy was reportedly a mid-level member of that drug cartel, for which his brother also worked.
Authorities who responded to the shooting say Moroyoqui-Yocupicio was wearing pants covered in blood.
Moroyoqui-Yocupicio's lawyer, James Hann, had argued authorities had no evidence that Moroyoqui-Yocupicio actually killed the victim and had said his client was intoxicated and didn't remember anything and didn't know the victim.
A message left for Hann at midday Thursday was immediately returned.
Prosecutors say a man who lived in the apartment where the killing took place overheard the victim and the three other suspects talking shortly before the killing about La Santa Muerte, a Mexican folk saint who counts cartel members among its devotees. The underground saint, which is not recognized by the Catholic Church, has gained in popularity in the U.S. among immigrants, artists and gay activists.
Associated Press writer Russell Contreras in Albuquerque, N.M., contributed to this report.