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Border & Immigration

Drug Lord Arellano Felix Pleads Guilty, Faces Life Sentence

Drug Lord Arellano Felix Pleads Guilty, Faces Life Sentence

Prosecutors in the case against former drug cartel leader Francisco Javiero Arellano Felix are pleased with the recent resolution of the case and are emboldened by their success. Arellano Felix headed one Mexico's most notorious and ruthless drug trafficking organizations. He pleaded guilty in federal court in San Diego this week. The plea is expected to put him in prison for life. As KPBS Reporter Amy Isackson explains, prosecutors are now focusing on other members of the cartel.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy who lead the case against Francisco Javier Arellano Felix says putting the drug kingpin in jail for the rest of his life is the culmination of more than twenty years of investigation into the Tijuana drug cartel.


Duffy: It’s the most severe sentence he could have received short of the Attorney General authorizing the death penalty.

It’s not clear if Duffy asked the Attorney General to seek death. However, she supports the decision because it allows continued cooperation with Mexico.

Duffy: Mexico is very pleased by the decision and I think it really keeps open the door for our continued ability to extradite these figures up to the United States.

Former federal prosecutor John Kirby says Arellano-Felix was lucky.

Kirby: Javier Arellano, by any normal standard, deserved the death penalty.

Kirby helped build the U.S. Attorney's case against the cartel during his tenure in the San Diego U.S. Attorney's office.

He says Arellano-Felix was responsible for dozens of murders and the torture and kidnapping of Mexican law enforcement officials, a Catholic archbishop and rivals on both sides of the border.

Kirby says by sparing Arellano-Felix's life, the U.S. could get a chance to try more Mexican drug kingpins because Mexico has long denied extradition if it citizens could face the death penalty here.

Kirby: And that became a serious impediment for extradition of individuals like Benjamin Arellano if there was the possibility that he could face the death penalty.

Benjamin Arellano Felix is Javier's older brother and by all accounts the boss of the Arellano Felix drug cartel.

He was arrested in Mexico in 2002.

Under Benjamin's leadership, the cartel was believed to be responsible for trafficking more than half of all cocaine into the United States. U.S. law enforcement officials have long asked for Mexico to extradite Benjamin.

Prosecutors say they've come close a number of times. But something has always derailed the process. About a year ago, outgoing Mexican President Vicente Fox said he'd extradite any drug lord the U.S. wanted.

That policy appears to continue under new Mexican President Felipe Calderon. A month into his term, he sent 15 cartel leaders and violent criminals to the United States.

Federal prosecutor Duffy says it’s a real shift.

Duffy: I think that they have taken a zero tolerance stance against drug trafficking and are doing whatever they can to return some safety and security to the citizens of Mexico and extraditing these large cartel figures out of Mexico to stand trials in the United States is one of the means that they can achieve that goal.

Duffy says the U.S. Attorney's office is ready to turn its attention now to the next phase of the case.

She predicts Mexico will extradite Benjamin by the end of the year.

Amy Isackson, KPBS News.