U.S. District Judge William Hayes on Tuesday sentenced Victor Emilio Cazares Gastellum to 15 years in prison, calling him the "leader of a significant organization involved in the wide-scale importation of drugs into the United States."
Aligned with the powerful Sinaloa cartel, Cazares was in the business of shipping tons of cocaine from producers in Colombia and Venezuela to Mexico and distributing the drug throughout the U.S.
A Drug Enforcement Administration investigation into his organization's vast network of smugglers and distributors — code-named Operation Imperial Emperor — turned into one of the largest U.S. investigations against the Sinaloa cartel, resulting in about 400 arrests in the U.S. and Mexico and the seizure of $45 million in cash and tons of drugs, prosecutors said.
Family ties solidified Cazares' connections to the cartel; his sister is a former mistress of Sinaloa drug lord Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada and his nephew is married to the sister of Sinaloa co-leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the U.S. attorney's office said.
Cazares, 53, spent much of his childhood in the Sierra Madre range, a drug-trafficking stronghold. He moved to the Los Angeles area in the 1990s and eventually became a naturalized U.S. citizen. His time in the U.S. included two arrests on suspicion of methamphetamine possession — charges reduced to misdemeanors under California's Proposition 47, his attorney said.
He later moved back to Sinaloa, where he oversaw his cocaine business from his ranch outside Culiacan that included a mansion, twin-towered church and stables for his dancing horses.
Cazares, known as "the Gatekeeper" and "El Licenciado," used cells of truck drivers, pilots and others to smuggle cocaine across the U.S.-Mexico border, typically in the Calexico area, and move it to cities across the U.S.
In 2007 he was indicted in San Diego along with 18 others. A $5-million reward was offered for information leading to his arrest.
But Cazares eluded capture for many years and underwent plastic surgery for a more youthful look. He lived in a self-imposed home confinement in Mexico for a while, saying he was afraid of venturing out and being arrested.
"I was a fugitive of justice at that moment," Cazares told the judge Tuesday. "I was closed in my home like someone in jail, afraid I'd be arrested."
He said he suffered from stress, illness and "paranoia of being persecuted," and didn't risk telling his family where he was. "Until I got to the point where I just wanted to go into public without caring if I'd be arrested. I was so tired of being locked up in that house."
He was arrested on a U.S. warrant in April 2012 at a highway checkpoint near Guadalajara. He has been jailed ever since. He was extradited to the U.S. in March.
He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to import drugs in June, admitting his role in moving more than 450 kilograms of cocaine. As part of the plea, he agreed to forfeit $10 million. On Tuesday, he made his first payment of $150,000.
"I'm very sorry for my actions of my past life," Cazares told the judge through an interpreter. "When I get out, I'm going to live here and join a church and work for God. I want to live in a house surrounded by my children and grandchildren the rest of my life."