Image: Benjamin Arellano Felix
Mexican Attorney General's Office  /  Reuters
Benjamin Arellano Felix will likely spend the rest of his life in U.S. prison in the wake of his "reign of murder, mayhem and corruption."
msnbc.com news services
updated 1/5/2012 6:43:05 AM ET 2012-01-05T11:43:05

Mexican drug kingpin Benjamin Arellano Felix pleaded guilty Wednesday to racketeering and conspiracy to launder money, avoiding the spectacle of a trial for the leader of a cartel that once smuggled hundreds of tons of cocaine and marijuana into the United States and dissolved bodies of its rivals in vats of lye.

Under an agreement with federal prosecutors, Arellano Felix, 58, can be sentenced to no more than 25 years in prison — a lighter punishment than ordered for lower-ranking members of his once-mighty, Tijuana-based cartel. He also agreed to forfeit $100 million in profits.

Prosecutors agreed to dismiss other charges that could have brought 140 years in prison if he was convicted.

The half-hour hearing was an anticlimactic finish to the U.S. government's pursuit of one of the world's most powerful drug bosses during the 1990s.

His cartel, with its iron-tight grip on the drug trade along California's border with Mexico, was portrayed in the Steven Soderbergh film "Traffic" but has struggled in recent years as other cartels have become more ruthless than ever.

'A clear message'
Laura Duffy, the U.S. attorney in San Diego who built much of her career on the case, said Arellano Felix will likely spend the rest of his life in U.S. prison but did not elaborate on the reasoning for the plea deal.

"Today's guilty plea marks the end of his reign of murder, mayhem and corruption, and his historic admission of guilt sends a clear message to the Mexican cartel leaders operating today: The United States will spare no effort to investigate, extradite and prosecute you for your criminal activities," Duffy said.

Arellano Felix stood attentively in court, acknowledging his guilt as U.S. District Judge Larry Burns recited parts of a 17-page plea agreement. He told the judge that he has been suffering migraine headaches almost daily but that the problem didn't impair his judgment to accept the plea agreement.

Anthony Colombo Jr., Arellano Felix's attorney, said his client could be released from U.S. prison in 20 years if credited for time served in this country and good behavior, assuming he gets the maximum 25-year sentence. As a Mexican citizen, he would then be deported to Mexico, where he still has nine years left on a sentence for related crimes.

Story: Drug violence creeps into Mexico City

Colombo said the government may have agreed to the deal to avoid having to bargain with 21 potential government witnesses for reduced sentences in exchange for their testimony. They also may have wanted to avoid a lengthy trial.

"They have to consider years and years of litigation, plus the expense, is avoided by this resolution," Colombo told reporters. "It was a favorable deal to my client who faced a minimum of 40 years and a maximum of 140 years under the extradition agreement."

Video: Drug violence comes to Mexican resort (on this page)

John Kirby, a former federal prosecutor who co-wrote the 2003 indictment against Arellano Felix, said the case rested entirely on cooperating witnesses, instead of wiretaps or physical evidence. He said those cases weaken over time as witnesses die, get into more trouble or change their minds about testifying.

"This kind of case is based solely on witness testimony, and it slowly disintegrates," Kirby said. "Maybe from the time when we put it together and now, it's not such a great case anymore."

The cost of a trial was unlikely to have influenced prosecutors, Kirby said.

"The government doesn't care about the expense, the government cares about winning," he said.

Story: Inside Ciudad Juarez, the border city that's deadlier than Afghanistan

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.

Benjamin Arellano Felix was extradited from Mexico in April 2011 to face drug, money-laundering and racketeering charges, one of the highest-profile kingpins to face prosecution in the United States.

'The CEO of the operation'
The U.S. indictment said Arellano Felix was the top leader of a cartel he led with his brothers, going back to 1986. It says the cartel tortured and killed rivals in the United States and Mexico as it smuggled Mexican marijuana and Colombian cocaine. The group focused on a 100-mile wide corridor stretching from Tijuana, south of San Diego, to Mexicali, south of Calexico.

"He was the top of the chain," Kirby said. "The brothers were at the top, and he was at the very top. He had the final say ... He was like the CEO of the operation."

Story: US mom, 2 daughters killed in Mexico attacks

The cartel began to lose influence along California's border with Mexico after Arellano Felix was arrested in 2002. A month earlier, his brother, Ramon, called the cartel's top enforcer, died in a shootout with Mexican authorities.

Benjamin Arellano Felix was incarcerated in Mexico after his 2002 arrest and was later sentenced to 22 years in prison on drug trafficking and organized crime charges.

Video: Inside the drug tunnels (on this page)

With the downfall of the Arellano Felix brothers, the rival Sinaloa cartel run by Mexico's most-wanted man, Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, has largely taken over the cartel's valuable turf in Tijuana.

It will likely be difficult for the government to collect the $100 million that Arellano Felix agreed to forfeit.

"Whether there is anything out there that (the government) can seize, I don't know," Colombo said.

Sentencing was set for April 2.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Inside the drug tunnels

  1. Transcript of: Inside the drug tunnels

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: Now to a remarkable discovery and a record pot bust along the nation's border with Mexico . Federal agents have found a massive secret passage, an elaborate tunnel equipped with a rail system and an elevator used to smuggle drugs into the US. Tonight NBC 's Mark Potter takes us inside.

    MARK POTTER reporting: Federal agents say it's the most elaborate smuggling tunnel they've seen in years, more than 600 yards long with wooden walls and floors.

    Unidentified Man #1: The tunnel has lighting, and it does have good air flow, indicating that there's some type of ventilation system forcing air in from Mexico .

    POTTER: The tunnel begins on the Mexican side of the border in a warehouse at the Tijuana airport . To lower drugs into the tunnel , there is a hydraulic elevator which leads to a rail system where an electric cart waits to carry marijuana to the US side. On steps leading upward, the tunnel emerges inside another warehouse in Otay Mesa , California .

    Unidentified Man #2: Looks like the tunnel goes down about 30 feet here.

    POTTER: This enhanced aerial photograph shows the tunnel going beneath a runway, roads, a big parking lot, and the border fence .

    Mr. DEREK BENNER (United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement): All considered, a highly efficient mechanism to move narcotics in an underground environment.

    POTTER: Police say they seized 32 tons of marijuana, a record for a single tunnel . Much of it was hidden in pumpkin boxes. Federal agents suspect it's the work of Mexico 's powerful Sinaloa drug cartel , currently harvesting its ever-increasing fall marijuana crop. Authorities say especially this time of year, traffickers need tunnels to smuggle huge drug loads to the US.

    Ms. LAURA DUFFY (United States Attorney): If they can't cross the border above ground, they attempt to tunnel underneath it.

    POTTER: The Sinaloa cartel is headed by Joaquin Guzman , known as " El Chapo " or "Shorty." Since his daring escape from prison 10 years ago, Mexican authorities have been unable to touch him.

    Mr. GEORGE GRAYSON (College of William and Mary): He has the police under his thumb. He controls much of the judicial system in his state and neighboring states, and he's virtually an untouchable.

    POTTER: In the last four years, American agents have found more than 75 illegal tunnels crossing from Mexico to the US, but say this one is the most sophisticated. Mark Potter , NBC News, Miami.

Photos: Narco culture permeates Mexico, leaks across border

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  1. Tijuana, June 2009: Mexico's drug culture is defined by guns and money, to be sure, but it includes sex, movies, music and even a heavy dose of religion. It also extends across the border into the U.S.

    Since 2008, photojournalist Shaul Schwarz has been documenting that culture. Presented here are snapshots of that coverage, starting with what makes it all happen: cash. This stash was confiscated and the alleged courier, seen at center, was detained by Mexican soldiers.

    "Since the beginning of President Felipe Calderon's drug war in 2006, Mexican officials have held press conferences to show detained suspects," Schwarz notes. "At the same time the violence persists" -- with nearly 35,000 people killed through 2010. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Three young men died in this shootout in the parking lot of a shopping mall. In the first half of that year, more than 1,000 drug war deaths were counted in Juarez alone. The city of 1.3 million has been the center of a drug turf war between the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Residents of a neighborhood survey the site where a body was found, presumably another victim of drug turf clashes. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Mexico City, July 2009: Mexico's drug and gang culture has a strong religious streak. Thousands of devotees seen here attend a mass for Santa Muerte -- Saint Death -- a mythical figure condemned by the Catholic Church but embraced by many poor and criminal elements. This gathering is outside a shrine in Tepito, a gritty neighborhood famous for its street markets brimming with pirated and stolen merchandise.

    "Its violent and dangerous streets serve as a sort of mecca for Santa Muerte followers," Schwarz says. "Tepito is also home to the most popular Santa Muerte shrine, which sits outside a modest home. On the first day of every month, the shrine fills with followers who come bearing statuettes of the saint. Some pilgrims make their way from the subway on their knees; many smoke weed or cigars with their saints." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Mexico City, October 2009: Devotees of Saint Judas Thaddaeus inhale glue out of plastic bags to get high as they gather outside San Hipolito church during the annual pilgrimage honoring the saint.

    Judas Thaddaeus is the Catholic Church's patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes, but in Mexico he is also known as "the saint of both cops and robbers (and prostitutes), as well as one of the biggest spiritual figures for young people in Mexico City," Schwarz says. "He has become the generic patron saint of disreputable activities. His biggest – and most important shrine – is at Hipolito, one of the best preserved colonial churches." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Mexico City, October 2009: This shrine in the Colonia Doctores neighborhood pays homage to both Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde, reputedly a bandit killed by officials in 1909.

    Jesus Malverde is revered by many as a Robin Hood who stole from the rich to give to the poor. Several dozen such shrines exist in this neighborhood and in Tepito, where the cults thrive. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Tijuana, June 2009: A shrine to Santa Muerte sits above a home in the notorious Colonia Libertad neighborhood. The shrine is walled in by the old border fence separating Tijuana from San Diego. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Tijuana, March 2009: A man peeks through a fence toward the U.S., studying Border Patrol movements before crossing. New fences are constantly being built to deter illegal immigrants and drug traffickers.

    In 2010, President Barack Obama ordered some 1,200 National Guard troops to the Southwest border and also signed a $600 million bill to fund 1,500 new Border Patrol agents, customs inspectors and law enforcement officials. But the U.S. has also had to pull the plug on a troubled $1 billion "virtual fence" project meant to better guard stretches of the border. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Tijuana, June 2009: Federal police pat down a stripper during the raid of a large dance club. Several nightclubs in the notorious downtown red-light district were raided that night. Other parts of the strip continued as normal, with foreigners approaching young prostitutes as families with small children walked by with little notice and mariachis played on. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Ciudad Juarez, December 2008: A woman's body lies on the autopsy table where it was discovered that she was raped and then murdered in what was made to look like a suicide.

    "Violence against women has also surged in correlation to the daily multiple uninvestigated and unpunished homicides," Schwarz says. "The coroner's office is open 24/7 and employs more than 100 doctors, technicians and investigative specialists, who cover Ciudad Juarez and northern Chihuahua state." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Tijuana, June 2009: The drug culture is often portrayed by Mexican cinema. Here director Antonio Herrera films a scene for "Vida Mafiosa" -- Mafia Life -- a low budget film glorifying the culture. "This is the only thing selling at the moment for me," Herrera said at the time as he worked to complete his seventh narco film. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Tijuana, November 2010: A scene from "El Baleado" -- The Shooting Victim -- shows young men being executed shortly after smuggling drugs in from a beach. The film was produced by Baja Films Productions, a family-owned company that almost went out of business until family member Oscar Lopez, a San Diego resident, convinced his father to make a narco film. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Tijuana, April 2010: Los Angeles gangsters hang out at the production of a narco film. One of the gang members (not pictured) was an extra in the film. "That was a good excuse for them to come down to TJ and party where the drugs and women are cheap," Schwarz says. "It's common for gangsters/narcos to want to appear in these films." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Mexico City, October 2009: Devotees of Saint Judas Thaddaeus gather outside San Hipolito church. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Tijuana, June 2009: Young Mexicans in the Colonia Libertad neighborhood smoke pot and hang out at a spot overlooking the border with the U.S. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Burbank, Calif., April 2010: Alfredo Rios, better known by his stage name "El Komander", walks down a street just outside the studio of his agent and music producer. From Sinaloa, El Komander is one of the hottest singers/composers of "Narcocorrido" songs, which glorify the drug culture.

    "He regularly performs at private parties for Sinaloa's cartel members as well as composes songs for/about them, at times even commissioned by the drug lords," Schwarz says. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Tijuana, April 2010: Narcocorrido performer "The Scorpion" (whose real name is Amador Granados) shows off his belt while on the set of a Baja Films Productions movie that translated into English means: Seagulls Don't Fly Alone. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Culiacan, March 2009: A man and his two sons visit Culiacan's main Jesus Malverde shrine, located across from a McDonald's and near the state legislature.

    "The narco culture is becoming more and more mainstream and the shrine draws people of all walks of life," Schwarz says. "Many visitors leave Polaroid photos with pithy notes giving thanks to Malverde."

    "The image of his mustachioed face, bedecked with a neckerchief, a gold chain with a pistol charm around his neck, and a large belt-buckle with a pistol around his waist can now be found all over the U.S.," Schwarz adds. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. El Monte, Calif., April 2010: The Bukanas De Culiacan band gets ready to perform during the launch event of "Movimiento Alterado," a new form of Narcocorrido gaining popularity. "Narco music clubs are mushrooming all over L.A., and up and down the West Coast," Schwarz says.
    "It's a social movement of people who came from nothing and dream of a chance out," said Joel Vazquez, the band's manager. "It's a lot like hip hop or gangsta rap, except it's Mexican culture, not black." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Pico Rivera, Calif., April 2010: Partyers use the bathroom at El Rodeo Night Club, one of the many big Narcocorrido clubs in the Los Angeles area. "The cross-over music scene and culture is generating hybrid fashion trends and lifestyle ties between the Sinaloa mainstream, in Mexico and the Mexican-American mainstream culture in L.A.," Schwarz says. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Police protect a crime scene where two bodies were found in the desert near the border with the U.S. Much of Mexico's drug violence is due to turf wars for control of the border routes. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Culiacan, July 2009: The Jardines del Humaya Cemetery hosts many grave sites dedicated to drug traffickers. Some are two- and three-stories tall; many have bulletproof glass, Italian marble and spiral iron staircases.

    "Inside the mausoleums are pictures of the deceased, often men in their 20s and 30s, and signs of Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde," says Schwarz. "And, as in many of the cemeteries found in the drug-war inflicted Mexico, rows of freshly dug graves await their new tenants." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Apatzingan, April 2010: This home hadn't been touched in the two years after it was shot at and burned down by soldiers in a deadly attack on members of the La Familia drug cartel. Many of its leaders were born in this town, and in December 2010 one of its founders was killed by soldiers there. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. The religion

    Culiacan, July 2009: A young man makes his way to the shrine of Jesus Malverde. Culiacan is the capital of the northwestern state of Sinaloa, long a hot bed of drug cultivation. For decades traffickers have worshipped at the shrine, helping to spread Malverde's fame. "Followers call Malverde the Robin Hood of Mexico," Schwarz says. "Critics say he has become a symbol of crime. Drug traffickers claim him as their own." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Tultitlan, November 2009: Santa Muerte devotees attend a service in the courtyard of a church with a 65-foot-tall statue of the mythical figure. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Angeles National Forest, Calif., August 2009: Santa Muerte worshipers gather in a creek just outside Los Angeles. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: This bridge to El Paso, Texas, is one of the legal border crossings into the U.S. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Tijuana, March 2009: Mexico's military shows off the results of a raid on a party: assault weapons and the arrests of 58 people. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Culiacan, July 2009: A new inmate kisses his wife goodbye as their daughter cries.

    The Culiacan prison is notorious for violence and riots. "Security forces most often stay outside just along the perimeter of the prison and do not go in to the living quarters themselves," Schwarz says. "Weed, other drugs and cell phones along with statues of saints are common inside this typical Mexican jail." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Tijuana, March 2009: A drug addict sits in a tent where he lives along the border canal with the U.S. "The border canal has become a regular spot for junkies to use heroin," Schwarz says. "While the Mexican police do nothing, the U.S Border Patrol are just out of jurisdiction." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Mexico City, October 2009: Jose Garcia Pichardo prays and smokes a cigar at the Santa Muerte altar in his bedroom. Pichardo said he once was a drug dealer and that two years earlier the Santa saved him from the police. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Women spread flour to soak up blood where a young man was murdered. Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the border city that year, and another 3,000 in 2010.

    "As a photojournalist I have covered conflicts and wars since 1996, but Mexico’s present situation haunts me like no other," Schwarz says. "While death statistics have been documented ad nauseum, far less has been said about the broader social reality created by the drug trade. As I continue to cover this story that seems to have no end in sight, I plan to focus not only on the harsh existence in border towns, but on the culture created for millions of Mexicans and Americans inevitably involved in or affected by the drug trade and a desire for “narco luxury.” (Shaul Schwarz/ Reportage By Gett / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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