SAN DIEGO - A federal judge sentenced drug kingpin Benjamin Arellano Felix on Monday to 25 years in prison for leading one of the world's most powerful cartels for more than a decade before the ring was crippled by his arrest.
U.S. District Judge Larry Burns told the court that the 58-year-old drug lord deserved a life sentence for harming both countries in a "profound" way but he was limited by a plea agreement that set 25 years as the maximum. Burns noted that people who followed Arellano Felix's orders are serving much longer sentences.
"If I had it within my power, I would impose a longer sentence," Burns told Arellano Felix.
Burns described him as a loyal family man who "acted without a conscious" when he ordered ruthless killings and kidnappings that unleashed a wave of drug violence that continues to terrorize Mexico today while poisoning American society with highly addictive drugs.
The thin, 58-year-old kingpin declined to discuss his crime or apologize when asked by the judge whether he had anything to say to the public about his actions.
"I am being accused of things that other people did," Arellano Felix told the judge. "They want to hold me responsible for those things."
Burns countered that Arellano Felix admitted to calling the shots for the cartel and directing the kidnappings, killings and torture on both sides of the border. He asked him if his statement meant he want to retract his guilty plea.
Arellano Felix said he did not and had nothing more to say.
Prosecutors say he ordered killed informants, potential witnesses and rivals while buying off Mexican law enforcement and laundering 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.
Before his sentencing, Arellano Felix's new attorney argued that his client did not understand his plea agreement and was led to believe by his previous attorney whom he fired that he would be credited for the nine years he served in a Mexican prison before he was extradited to the United States.
Arellano Felix told the judge he served time for the same charges in Mexico.
Burns disagreed, saying killings were committed on both sides of the border and that this sentence is for his crimes in the United States. The judge said he would allow for him to be given credit for the time he has been in U.S. custody since April 29, 2011.
Arellano Felix pleaded guilty last year to racketeering and conspiracy to launder money after being extradited from Mexico.
The judge also ordered him to forfeit $100 million and prosecutors said they would be working on identifying the assets of the Tijuana-based cartel that is believed to have moved hundreds of tons of cocaine and marijuana into the United States.
U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy said the case tied up resources for more than two decades and that prosecutors decided to opt for the agreement because they knew he would not be out of prison in the United States until he is almost 80 and then he will be sent to Mexico to serve time there.
By avoiding going to trial, Duffy said federal authorities can now dedicate those resources to fighting the ongoing drug trafficking and violence plaguing the border.
The Arellano Felix ring, portrayed in the Steven Soderbergh film "Traffic," slowly lost its grip after Benjamin Arellano Felix was arrested in 2002 and his brother Ramon, the cartel's top enforcer, died in a shootout with Mexican authorities a month earlier.
The Arellano Felix cartel has broken down into fractions and the powerful Sinaloa cartel - now Mexico's biggest - has moved in to the area.
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.