image: Francisco Javier Arellano Felix
Francisco Javier Arellano Felix agreed to forfeit $50 million and the yacht on which he was captured last year in order to avoid the death penalty.
updated 9/17/2007 9:14:44 PM ET 2007-09-18T01:14:44

A notorious Mexican drug lord pleaded guilty Monday to federal crimes that carry a mandatory life sentence, reaching a deal that spares him execution.

Francisco Javier Arellano Felix, who led a cartel that emerged as a drug powerhouse in the 1980s, was captured last year when the Coast Guard found him deep-sea fishing off Mexico.

Arellano Felix, 39, pleaded guilty to running a continuing criminal enterprise and conspiracy to launder money. He agreed to forfeit $50 million and the yacht on which he was captured.

The plea agreement came after officials in Washington, D.C., agreed Saturday to not pursue the death penalty.

The Arellano Felix cartel, based across the border from San Diego in Tijuana, Mexico, is well known for its ruthlessness, and was blamed in a 2003 U.S. indictment for 20 murders in the U.S. and Mexico.

In December, prosecutors included as evidence of a criminal enterprise allegations that Arellano Felix ordered the killing of Tijuana’s deputy police chief and the beheadings of three police officers.

Caught deep-sea fishing on yacht
Arellano Felix sat in court Monday wearing an orange jumpsuit and answered procedural questions calmly in Spanish. He was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs.

According to the agreement read in court by a defense attorney, Arellano Felix helped run the cartel, which brought into the United States hundreds of tons of cocaine and hundreds of tons of marijuana and laundered hundreds of millions of dollars.

U.S. District Judge Larry Burns scheduled sentencing for Nov. 5.

Under the plea agreement all other charges were dropped.

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 brother Benjamin is in a Mexican prison and brother Eduardo is at large.

The U.S. Coast Guard captured Arellano Felix as he was deep-sea fishing aboard his yacht, the Dock Holiday, in international waters off Mexico’s Baja California coast in August 2006.

Authorities said at the time that two suspected cartel assassins were among passengers captured along with Arellano Felix.

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