Top drug cartel figure pleads guilty in San Diego - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Top drug cartel figure pleads guilty in San Diego

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SAN DIEGO (AP) - A suspected top figure in Mexico's Arellano Felix drug cartel pleaded guilty to a drug charge Thursday, nearly ending a nine-year legal battle that saw the cartel's power fade at the hands of authorities and rivals.

Jesus "Chuy" Labra pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute at least 100 kilograms of marijuana and at least 100 grams of cocaine.

Defense attorney Guadalupe Valencia said money laundering and racketeering charges against Labra will be dropped.

U.S. District Judge Larry Alan Burns is set to drop the additional charges and sentence Labra to between five and 40 years in prison on Jan. 4. Valencia said defense attorneys plan to ask for a five-year sentence.

Valencia said he hoped the plea would lead Mexican authorities to drop similar charges there.

"I think it's a good result considering the situation," he said. "We're hopeful that the Mexican government will see what happened today and dismiss the case."

Officials from the U.S. attorney's office verified the plea agreement but had no further comment.

Labra was extradited to the United States from Mexico on the last day of 2008 to face drug, racketeering and money laundering charges.

He had been arrested while watching his son's soccer game in Tijuana in March 2000, when the cartel was near the height of its power.

Labra tapped extensive connections with Colombian cocaine traffickers and Mexican marijuana growers and regularly participated in the cartel's major decisions, according to a 2003 indictment.

He was accused of smuggling marijuana across the border to the United States beginning in the 1970s. Labra later moved into cocaine when Colombian suppliers shifted trafficking routes from the Caribbean and Florida to ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border, said John Kirby, a former federal prosecutor who co-wrote the indictment.

"He was one of the people who knew how to move stuff across the border," Kirby said.

At the time of his arrest, Labra and two others who were also indicted in 2003 made the cartel's key decisions about where to buy drugs and how to get them to the U.S., Kirby said. Benjamin Arellano Felix was arrested in 2002 in Mexico, and U.S. authorities have been trying to get him extradited for years. Manuel Aguirre Galindo remained at large.

The Arellano Felix has seen its grip on drug smuggling along the California-Mexico border slowly erode since 2002, when Benjamin was captured and Ramon Arellano Felix was killed. Ramon had a reputation has a ruthless killer.

Labra, a Mexican citizen, and nine others were extradited Dec. 31, bringing the number of suspects sent from Mexico to 95 in 2008, the highest ever.

Labra's attorney initially challenged the extradition, saying a treaty between the U.S. and Mexico requires that a verdict first be reached on criminal charges that Labra faced in Mexico. Labra had been in Mexican prison for nearly nine years when he was extradited.

"I assume the Mexicans are probably happy not to deal with him," Kirby said. "They don't need the headache."


Associated Press Writer Andrew Dalton contributed to this report.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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