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Benjamin Arellano-Felix wants out early from prison on ‘compassionate release’

The former Tijuana drug cartel leader claims he's in prison for a "non-violent drug trafficking offense."

SAN DIEGO — A former drug kingpin and leader of Tijuana’s notorious Arellano-Felix cartel is asking for early release from a 25-year prison sentence on “compassionate” grounds.

Benjamin Arellano-Felix, 68, wrote his own motion and filed it in San Diego federal court on April 25, pleading for his early release.

“I was sentenced in 2012 to 25-years without the possibility of parole. I was 48-years of age, a man not capable of fully understanding the value of life. Now at 68-years of age, it sickens me to look back to the day in which my acts made public news. Sadly, I can't change my past, but I can indeed walk forward and cure as much as possible by providing to those in need,” Arellano-Felix wrote in his motion to the court, obtained by CBS 8.

Authorities arrested Arellano-Felix in Mexico in 2002. He was extradited to the United States in 2011 and pleaded guilty in 2012 to racketeering and conspiracy to launder money, as part of a plea deal where he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

During his sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California in downtown San Diego, Arellano-Felix argued he should be given credit for time served in custody in Mexico, while waiting to be extradited.  U.S. District Judge Larry Burns denied the request.

Credit: CBS

In his recent motion, Arellano-Felix renewed the same line of argument, citing the First Step Act, a federal sentencing-reform bill signed into law in 2018.

“The Court has an opportunity to correct an injustice.  In 2012, Mr. Arellano was sentenced to a term of 25-years in prison for a non-violent drug trafficking offense.  At that time, the Court's hands were bound.  In 2018, Congress passed the First Step Act to prevent individuals like Mr. Arellano from having to serve long terms in prison.  Mr. Arellano now moves for a compassionate reduction in his sentence… because of the change in the law,” Arellano-Felix wrote.

“Mr. Arellano's criminal conduct does not justify a sentence to death in prison.  If released now, he would be returned to his family in Mexico.  Mr. Arellano requests that this Court say 'enough is enough,' resentence him, and allow him to return to his family in Mexico,” he wrote to the court.

Read the court motion below or launch PDF full screen:

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Arellano-Felix contended that “extraordinary and compelling” reasons, including the threat of COVID reinfection, justified his early release.

“…with multiple medical conditions including hypertension, prediabetes, obesity liber [sic] dysfunction and his inability to walk without discomfort make his [sic] eligible for compassionate release,” the motion stated.

“Even when Mr. Arellano has been vaccinated, the vaccine has proven ineffective and only to minimize the level of severity upon contracting COVID-19, however, it does not prevent contracting it.  Mr. Arellano presents concerns that because of his chronic medical conditions he if [sic] recontracts COVID-19, he would be highly affected and exposed to even death,” Arellano-Felix wrote.

Arellano-Felix currently is being held at United States Penitentiary, Lee (USP Lee) in Virginia. His release date is listed as April 28, 2033 on the Bureau of Prisons website.

“At the time he was involved in narcotics distribution, Mr. Arellano was 48.  He had no prior convictions. Mr. Arellano, is a Mexican citizen, capable of maintaining employment. Nothing in his background or in the instant offense suggests that Mr. Arellano is a violent person. He has no prior violent convictions, misdemeanors or felonies,” the former drug lord wrote.

“Mr. Arellano's family are supportive and willing to provide housing upon release.  At the age of 68-years old, Mr. Arellano may work at his family's business in Mexico,” he wrote.

San Diego defense attorney Anthony Colombo negotiated Arellano-Felix's plea bargain in 2012.  He said violent crimes were admitted in court as part of that deal.

"Certainly there were violent acts committed during the course of the conspiracy, not by Mr. Arellano-Felix himself, but by others who would have been alleged to have acted on behalf of Mr. Arellano-Felix," Colombo told CBS 8.

The attorney said he expects Judge Burns will reject the motion "on the papers," meaning he does not expect the judge will grant Arellano-Felix a court hearing.

"He'll do 85 percent of his time, which means that he'll likely be out of custody at the age of 78.  The question that I have is what will the Mexican authorities do with him, then?" said Colombo.

Arellano-Felix included, as an attachment to his motion, a letter he wrote to the warden of USP Lee, in which he claimed he has found religion and seeks forgiveness:

“I fully agree that forgiveness is a significant gesture, and only comes to those who truly seek change. Through this petition, I present my desire to humbly expose my transition in life, as I am no longer immature.  For near 20-year of my life my behavior while incarcerated represents my desire to rehabilitate.  My life has been dramatically and eternally altered by my decision to become a follower of Jesus Christ.  For many years I have demonstrated to be a man of honor, a consistent leader among the Church in prison.  I believe in God, and indeed in rehabilitation of not only the soul by [sic] the mind," the motion concluded.

"The fact that he realizes that he made a lot of mistakes, I think is a good thing, and I hope that he's sincere in that," said attorney Colombo.

Prosecutors have not yet responded to Arellano-Felix’s “compassionate release” motion.  No hearing has been set, according to the court’s online docket.

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