SAN DIEGO Mexican drug lord Francisco Javier Arellano Felix was sentenced to life in prison without parole Monday for running the notoriously violent cartel that bears his family's name, which the judge said "will live in infamy."
"The effect on this country of what you and your family have done is disastrous," U.S. District Judge Larry A. Burns said as he gave Arellano Felix the mandatory sentence for running a criminal enterprise and conspiring to launder money.
"I tell you today, man to man, that even if I had the discretion not to impose a life sentence in this case, that's what I'd find most reasonable," Burns said.
The Arellano Felix cartel emerged as a drug trafficking powerhouse in the 1980s in Tijuana, across the border from San Diego, though its influence is widely believed to have waned in recent years as its leaders have been killed or captured.
Arellano Felix, at 37 the youngest of the cartel's seven brothers, pleaded guilty Sept. 7. He admitted in court that he helped run the cartel as it smuggled into the U.S. hundreds of tons of cocaine and marijuana and laundered hundreds of millions of dollars.
According to his plea agreement, Arellano Felix and his partners murdered informants and potential witnesses and paid millions of dollars in bribes to law enforcement and military personnel. He pleaded guilty after prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty.
In a letter translated into English and read by his lawyer at the sentencing hearing, Arellano Felix asked people on both sides of the border to forgive his "wrongful decisions and criminal conduct."
"I am very remorseful and personally accept responsibility for my actions," he wrote. "If I had the power to change and undo the things that I have done, I would."
U.S. authorities captured Arellano Felix in an August 2006 raid on a sportfishing yacht off the Baja California coast. The arrest followed an intense manhunt, during which the State Department had offered a $5 million reward for the drug lord's capture.
Defense lawyer David Bartick said after the sentencing that Arellano Felix was prepared to be sent to the so-called Supermax prison in Florence, Colo., where the nation's most violent criminals are held. The decision on where Arellano Felix will be housed rests with the federal Bureau of Prisons.
The cartel was once led by seven brothers and four sisters, but Francisco Javier's brother Ramon was killed in a shootout with police in 2002. His elder brother Benjamin was jailed in Mexico the same year; federal prosecutors in San Diego are seeking his extradition. Prosecutor Laura Duffy said she was pleased to have extracted a plea from Francisco Javier because it allowed the government to keep its evidence secret ahead of any proceedings against his older brother.
Francisco Javier Arellano Felix, who had been held without bond, agreed to forfeit $50 million and the yacht he was captured on, the Dock Holiday. His right-hand man, Manuel Arturo Villarreal Heredia, who also had been on board, pleaded guilty to racketeering and conspiracy and faces up to 30 years in prison at sentencing, set for January.
Since the yacht raid, Arellano Felix's older brother Francisco Rafael and two senior cartel capos have been extradited to the U.S. and sentenced on drug charges in San Diego.