In this Friday, Dec. 7, 2012 photo, a man walks past an expansion of the Tijuana Cultural Center known as "The Cube," designed by architect Eugenio Velazquez, in Tijuana, Mexico.
(AP) — An acclaimed architect was sentenced Monday to six months in
prison for hiding nearly 13 pounds of cocaine in his minivan's battery
before he tried to enter the U.S.
A federal judge ordered the
unusually light punishment after Eugenio Velazquez claimed drug
traffickers threatened to kill him if he refused to carry the cocaine.
51, embraced his smiling wife, daughters and supporters outside court
after being told to report to prison Jan. 11 to begin a the sentence in
federal custody, followed by six more months of home confinement.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Whelan said the ability of Velazquez to verify threats against him were crucial to the sentence.
pleaded guilty in June to trying to bring 12.8 pounds of cocaine into
the U.S. in a special lane for prescreened, trusted motorists. A
drug-sniffing dog alerted inspectors to five packages hidden in the
battery of his 2004 Nissan Quest at San Diego's San Ysidro port of entry.
is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Mexico, and a member of Tijuana's
elite, equally at ease on both sides of the border. He lives in a
modest, suburban San Diego
neighborhood and had a flourishing career designing some of the Mexican
border city's most prominent buildings over the past decade, including
its new main cathedral, an expansion of the Tijuana Cultural Center, and
Velazquez claimed criminals threatened to kill him and hurt his family if he refused.
"I never imagined I would be standing here," he told the judge.
could have faced a minimum mandatory sentence of 10 years for importing
a controlled substance, but his lack of a criminal record and other
factors gave the judge discretion to deliver the more lenient
Prosecutors asked for 2½ years in prison in a brief
court filing but made no argument after the judge signaled he was
leaning toward the lighter sentence.
Warren had asked for one year of home confinement.
A court filing by his attorney, Jeremy Warren, said Velazquez's downfall began with a project to design the facade of a ranch.
architect, fearful of drug-fueled violence in Tijuana, accepted his
client's offer to provide personal security while Velazquez crossed the
border between home and work.
The arrangement seemed to work out so well that Velazquez referred a friend who also wanted protection.
the client — unnamed in the filing — demanded the men pay $40,000 or
drive drugs across the border. He flipped a coin to determine who would
transport the drugs and Velazquez lost. The architect surrendered his
minivan for packing and got the call to move the cocaine on March 4, his
Velazquez's attorney told reporters after the
sentencing that the friend verified the claims for U.S. investigators.
Both men said they were threatened at gunpoint.
"This does happen but it's extremely difficult to convince anybody," Warren said.
Mexican cartels move cocaine north from South America, they rely on
"mules" to hide small packages of drugs in vehicle compartments and on
their bodies to get past U.S. inspectors on the Mexico border. Many
couriers are young, poor or adrift, desperate for a few hundred dollars.
California crossings alone, inspectors seized 86 tons of marijuana, 7
tons of cocaine and 4 tons of methamphetamine in the 2011 fiscal year.
in the U.S. and raised and educated in Mexico, Velazquez, a college
professor and devoted Catholic, has done more than 400 residential,
commercial and liturgical projects during a 30-year career. His work
ranges from utilitarian industrial parks for multinational corporations
on Tijuana's eastern outskirts to some of the city's most recognized
Zeta, a Tijuana newspaper known for investigating
organized crime, named Velazquez its cultural person of the year in
2008. That same year, the Tijuana Cultural Center opened "El Cubo," or
"The Cube," his $9-million, burnt-sienna structure that stands next to a
distinctive globe-shaped building and provides enough space for large
After being freed on $100,000 bond after his
arrest, Velazquez opened an architecture and interior design firm with a
friend in Chula Vista, a San Diego suburb.
said Monday he would press ahead with Tijuana's Our Lady of Guadalupe
Cathedral, a giant complex under construction across the street from
City Hall that will be the seat of the Catholic archdiocese.
desperately wants to complete that project, and the church has stood
behind him as the architect whose vision has been and will continue to
be embodied throughout the structures and grounds," his attorney wrote
the judge last week.