Tijuana cartel leader pleads guilty

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SAN DIEGO — One of four brothers who ran Tijuana’s notorious Arellano Felix drug cartel for nearly 20 years pleaded guilty in San Diego Friday to federal charges of conspiracy to launder money and conspiracy to invest illicit drug proceeds.

Eduardo Arellano Felix, 56, faces a maximum of 15 years in prison when he is sentenced Aug. 19.

“I’m proud to say this is the end of an era,” said U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy. “When this ruthless cartel was thriving in the 1990s, we made what some considered an audacious and impossible commitment to wipe out the organization. Today, we can say we have done just that.”

U.S. District Court Judge Larry Burns told the defendant that he would be deported to Mexico once he serves his time in a U.S. prison. He also agreed to forfeit up to $50 million in money and other assets obtained through illegal drug trafficking.

Arellano Felix — a medical doctor nicknamed “El Doctor” — was extradited from Mexico to the United States last September on drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering charges. He faced a potential 140 years behind bars if convicted of all charges at trial, according to attorneys involved with the case.

Before taking his change of plea, Burns asked the defendant if he wanted to go to trial because he had that right.

“No, I want to plead guilty,” Arellano Felix told the judge.

The defendant admitted that from 1986 to November 2002, he took the proceeds from the drug cartel and invested it back into the AFO, and conceded that he was part of the cartel’s hierarchy and involved with its financial decisions.

The defendant and members of the AFO — led by his brother Benjamin — agreed to import hundreds of tons of cocaine and marijuana into the United States, taking in hundreds of millions of dollars from the drug trafficking operation, according to his plea agreement.

Arellano Felix admitted the drug profits were used to acquire weapons and to bribe public officials.

The defendant, described as a “senior adviser” to Benjamin, was arrested in Tijuana in October 2008 following a gun battle with a Mexican Special Tactical Team.

Authorities said the AFO, one of the most dominant and ruthless multi- national drug trafficking organizations, controlled the flow of cocaine, marijuana and other drugs through the Mexican border cities of Tijuana and Mexicali into the United States.

According to court papers, the leadership of the AFO negotiated directly with Colombian cocaine-trafficking organizations for the purchase of multi- ton shipments of the drug, received those shipments by sea and air in Mexico, and then arranged for the smuggling of the cocaine into the U.S. and its further distribution throughout the country. The proceeds of the AFO’s drug trafficking were then smuggled back into Mexico.

The cartel terrorized the Southwest border and beyond with executions, torture, beheadings and kidnappings, prosecutors said.

Benjamin Arellano Felix and Francisco Javier Arellano Felix, former leaders of the AFO, are currently serving sentences in the United States, where they were convicted of racketeering, drug trafficking and money laundering.

An older brother, Francisco Rafael Arellano-Felix, was deported to Mexico after he served a six-year sentence for selling cocaine.

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