SAN DIEGO — Benjamin Arellano Felix seemed to get off easy considering he was one of the world's most powerful drug traffickers in the 1990s. He pleaded guilty in January to crimes that would give him no more than 25 years in prison — a lighter punishment than ordered for lower-ranking members of his once-mighty, Tijuana-based cartel.
Now, in an 11th-hour twist, Arellano Felix, 58, fired his attorney just before his sentencing Monday in federal court, fueling speculation that he may be having second thoughts about his plea. He gave no explanation for wanting to change lawyers in his request to U.S. District Judge Larry Burns two weeks ago.
"It was very surprising to me," said Anthony Colombo Jr., the fired attorney who negotiated the agreement with prosecutors to cap the sentence at 25 years. "The sentencing is a pro-forma hearing. The heavy lifting is done."
Burns confirmed sentencing would take place Monday when he granted Arellano Felix's request to hire Nicholas De Pento, a San Diego criminal defense attorney. De Pento did not respond to a phone message Friday.
Burns, a former federal prosecutor who is also presiding over the case against Tucson shooting rampage suspect Jared Lee Loughner, is known as a stickler for staying on schedule. In the aftermath of 2007 wildfires that ravaged San Diego, he reopened his courtroom a day before every other judge in the federal building to resume the trial of Brent Wilkes, a defense contractor who was convicted of bribing former U.S. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham.
Still, Burns might be hard-pressed if Arellano Felix says he had an inadequate defense. John Kirby, a former federal prosecutor who co-wrote the 2003 indictment against Arellano Felix, predicted the judge would ask the parties to reconvene in six weeks under that scenario.
"It's very strange," Kirby said.
Prosecutors are seeking a 25-year sentence for racketeering and conspiracy to launder money, saying Arellano Felix led one of Mexico's largest drug trafficking organizations for more than 15 years and oversaw the shipment of hundreds of tons of cocaine and marijuana to the United States. He ordered kidnappings and killings of informants and potential witnesses, oversaw widespread corruption of Mexican law enforcement and laundered hundreds of millions of dollars to Mexico.
Arellano Felix has "destroyed lives and caused untold suffering on both sides of the border," prosecutors said in a court filing last week.
As part of the plea agreement, prosecutors offered to dismiss charges that could have brought 140 years in prison if he was convicted.
De Pento, the new defense attorney, did not file documents to argue for what he considers a fair punishment.
Francisco Javier Arellano Felix, a younger brother who led the cartel after Benjamin was arrested in Mexico in 2002, was sentenced in San Diego to life in prison in 2007, a year after he was captured by U.S. authorities in international waters off Mexico's Baja California coast. Jesus Labra Aviles, a lieutenant under Benjamin Arellano Felix, was sentenced in San Diego to 40 years in prison in 2010.
It is unclear why prosecutors agreed to a lighter sentence for Benjamin Arellano Felix, who was extradited from Mexico in April 2011. He is one of the highest-profile kingpins to face prosecution in the United States.
His cartel, portrayed in the Steven Soderbergh film "Traffic," slowly lost its grip after Benjamin Arellano Felix was arrested in 2002. A month earlier, his brother, Ramon, the cartel's top enforcer, died in a shootout with Mexican authorities.