A federal judge on Friday sentenced drug lord Juan Garcia Abrego to serve 11 life terms and ordered him to pay fines totaling more than $128 million, ending one of the most ambitious and costly joint U.S.-Mexican efforts to dismantle a major Mexican narcotics cartel.
Those penalties, along with an order permitting the U.S. government to seize an additional $350 million in Garcia Abrego’s assets, came almost four months after a federal jury convicted the Texas-born criminal on charges that he smuggled tons of cocaine and marijuana through Mexico into the United States and laundered millions of dollars in U.S. drug profits as head of Mexico’s notorious Matamoros-based Gulf cartel.
After U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein sentenced Garcia Abrego, who stood with hands clasped, wearing interpreter’s headphones, U.S. Assistant Atty. Melissa Annis told reporters that she knew of no attempts by Garcia Abrego or the government to negotiate a lesser sentence in exchange for the drug lord’s cooperation in future criminal investigations.
Defense attorneys, who had labeled Garcia Abrego’s three-week trial a “show” and the 50 prosecution witnesses “rats,” also denied that their client was attempting to cut a deal with the government. “We have never talked about that. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever,” attorney Tony Canales said, adding that the defense plans an appeal.
Garcia Abrego’s trial was closely watched by American and Mexican prosecutors searching for clues to what is known in Mexico as “narco-corruption"--payoffs by drug mafias to police commanders and politicians for official protection of Mexican drug routes, which U.S. officials say supply up to 75% of the cocaine now sold in the United States.
Several witnesses, all of them imprisoned in the U.S. for their roles in the Gulf cartel, testified to millions of dollars in bribes paid by Garcia Abrego to key Mexican prosecutors and police. But none implicated senior Mexican or U.S. politicians in the drug trade.
The pursuit and prosecution of Garcia Abrego, 52, was said to typify an aggressive, cooperative new attack on the multibillion-dollar, cross-border drug trade by U.S. and Mexican agencies.
Analysts said Friday’s stiff sentence will encourage more such efforts as law enforcement on both sides of the border try to track down leaders of Mexico’s other major drug mafias, especially the Juarez cartel and its reputed head, Amado Carrillo Fuentes.
Mexican prosecutors, however, recently have suffered serious setbacks in their attempts to win similar prison terms for major traffickers.
Last month, for example, a judge in Guadalajara dropped all drug charges against Hector Luis Palma, reputed head of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel. Palma was arrested last year, along with dozens of federal police who were protecting him, after an airplane crash. The Guadalajara judge sentenced him to six years in jail on illegal weapons charges.
Garcia Abrego, who was on the FBI’s 10-most-wanted list with a U.S. reward offer of $2 million for his capture, was never put on trial in Mexico. He was arrested a year ago near Monterrey, Mexico, by a squad of Mexican anti-drug agents. Within 24 hours, the Mexican government expelled him and flew him to Houston, where he was put on trial on a 22-count drug-trafficking and money-laundering indictment.
Before sentencing, Werlein asked the drug lord if he wished to make a statement. “No, senor,” Garcia Abrego said softly.
Annis, the federal prosecutor, said outside the courthouse, “I think the judge gave him the only sentence he could. He had no choice but to give him life.”
Asked whether the Gulf cartel is now broken, Annis, who has prosecuted dozens of members of Garcia Abrego’s organization since the U.S. government first targeted it 10 years ago, said, “If it’s not the end, it’s near the end. They’re mortally wounded.”
Hart reported from Houston and Fineman from Mexico City.