Edgar Manuel Valencia Ortega grew up in Mexico with the sons and nephews of Sinaloa cartel bosses, so when he decided to get into the drug trade himself he already had the connections to rise quickly to the top, federal prosecutors say.
In just a few years, Ortega became a significant middleman for the feared cartel, helping to launder millions of dollars in drug proceeds between the U.S. and Mexico as well as negotiate shipments of cocaine in Chicago and Los Angeles, according to court records.
It all ended just as quickly for Ortega, who was arrested in January 2014 while vacationing in Las Vegas and charged as part of the massive conspiracy case against Sinaloa's top leaders, including Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
A federal judge in Chicago sentenced Ortega, 29, on Friday to eight years in prison for his crimes, saying his actions furthered the narcotics trade that has devastated neighborhoods across the U.S.
But in giving Ortega less than the 11 years requested by prosecutors, U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo said his young age, supportive family and relatively short stint as a cartel operative made him a good candidate for rehabilitation.
As the judge spoke, a half dozen family members seated in the front row of the courtroom gallery nodded and wiped their eyes. Ortega, dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit and listening to the proceedings through an interpreter, kept his head down and stared at the floor.
Before the sentence was handed down, Ortega apologized to the judge, the United States and his family for his actions. He said he was most sorry for hurting his mother, who not only had to deal with him being locked up but also with the death of his brother, Hector. He was also indicted in the case but was killed last year in an apparent drug-related murder in Mexico.
"I know that she has suffered through this in ways that I cannot imagine," Ortega said in Spanish.
Ortega pleaded guilty in April to money laundering conspiracy. According to federal prosecutors, Ortega laundered as much as $3.5 million made from drug sales in the U.S. to Mexico over a two-year span.
Ortega was part of a sweeping indictment against Guzman and 18 other Sinaloa operatives that has been described by law enforcement as the most significant drug case in Chicago's history.
Guzman, who had been a fugitive for 13 years after breaking out of one prison, was arrested in 2014 in Mexico but made a spectacular escape from a maximum-security prison in July 2015 through a mile-long tunnel that was equipped with a motorcycle outfitted to run on rails. He was captured in January.
Meisner writes for the Chicago Tribune.