A top lieutenant in Colombia's North Valley cocaine cartel pleaded guilty Friday to U.S. drug trafficking and obstruction of justice charges and agreed to cooperate with investigators.
Eugenio Montoya Sanchez, 38, the brother of alleged North Valley mastermind Diego Montoya Sanchez, faces between 10 and 30 years in prison when he is sentenced April 3. The maximum life sentence is prohibited under Colombia's extradition agreement with the U.S.
Prosecutors say the Montoyas oversaw a drug empire that smuggled cocaine worth some $10 billion to the U.S. beginning in the early 1990s.
Eugenio Montoya admitted in court Friday that he handled the cartel's finances and money-laundering work, including a series of cash "stash houses" in Colombia where as much as $20 million in U.S. currency was hidden.
Montoya also acknowledged playing a role in the August 2003 torture, killing and dismemberment of a confederate whom cartel leaders feared was cooperating with authorities.
"Yes, your honor," Montoya answered when U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga asked if the allegations were true.
"You were a high-ranking manager," Altonaga said.
Montoya was arrested in January 2007 at a farm outside Cali, Colombia, and later extradited to the U.S. The North Valley cartel emerged in the 1990s as the leading exporter of cocaine to the U.S. — usually via Mexican land routes — following the demise of the earlier Cali and Medellin cartels.
Sentence reduction possible
In a written plea agreement, Montoya said he would cooperate with U.S. investigations — possibly including his brother's case — and assist in identifying property and other drug-tainted assets that could be forfeited. That cooperation could result in a future reduction in Montoya's sentence.
Montoya's attorney, Ruben Oliva, said the plea deal was the best possible outcome for his client, who would have faced more prison time if the case had gone to trial. Under the agreement, 10 other charges will be dropped.
Diego Montoya, 46, was extradited to Miami on Dec. 12 to face the same indictment as his brother. He has not yet entered a plea.
A third Montoya brother who helped run the cartel, Juan Carlos Montoya Sanchez, previously pleaded guilty and was sentenced in 2006 to nearly 22 years in federal prison.