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Judge ousts accused drug lord's attorney

By Mariano Castillo, CNN
  • NEW: Lawyer says accusations against him are "absolutely untrue" and "manufactured"
  • Jan Ronis was the private lawyer for Benjamin Arellano Felix
  • He was removed by a federal judge Monday
  • The government argued that Ronis had conflicts of interest

(CNN) -- A federal judge in San Diego has yanked a lawyer from the case of an alleged drug lord, citing conflicts of interest.

Jan Ronis was the private lawyer hired by accused drug kingpin Benjamin Arellano Felix, who was extradited to the United States from Mexico last month. U.S. District Judge Larry Burns granted the prosecution's motion for Ronis' dismissal Monday.

Government lawyers, in essence, argued that Ronis was known as an attorney for the Tijuana cartel and had provided counsel for witnesses that would testify against Arellano Felix in the current case. As they put it, Ronis had "involvement in factual events that may become issues at trial."

Ronis told CNN that the accusations levied against him were "absolutely untrue" and "manufactured to make sure Mr. Arellano didn't have his counsel of choice."

Arellano Felix was one of seven brothers who ran the cartel until he and the majority of the leadership were arrested. The Tijuana cartel, also known as the Arellano Felix Organization, was weakened as a result but is still considered one of Mexico's major drug trafficking operations.

He had been convicted of organized crime activities in Mexico and was serving several sentences in prison.

He is wanted in the United States on two indictments for conspiracy, money laundering, drug trafficking, operating a drug smuggling organization and murder.

According to court documents, a witness for the government will testify that after he was arrested and charged with cocaine distribution for the Tijuana cartel, he was assigned a public defender.

According to the witness, Ronis visited him and introduced himself as his attorney, even though neither he nor his family had hired him. Ronis told the witness that all the costs for him were taken care of.

Ronis' presence, the witness will testify, was used to dissuade the witness from cooperating with the government, court documents state.

But Ronis says that a closer look at the conversations shows that he had nothing to do with the witness's decisions.

The full story, Ronis said, includes three witnesses and two lawyers. He said the first witness worked for the second witness, who in turn worked for the third witness. The first lawyer was himself, Ronis said, and he represented the first witness. There was another lawyer who represented witness No. 2.

It's a lot of anonymous characters, but this is how Ronis explains it: Witness No. 1 asked his boss, witness No. 2, if they should cooperate. Witness No. 2 asked his lawyer, who asked witness No. 3 -- the highest-ranking of the trio. Witness No. 3 said no to cooperation, and that message was passed from the second lawyer to the second witness, and from the second witness to Ronis' client, the first witness.

In short, "I was never in the loop," Ronis said.

The attorney declined to say who hired him to represent the witness.

"I would never expose someone to a lengthy sentence without giving them an option to cooperate," Ronis said.

All he did, the attorney said, was explain to his client the possible outcomes of choosing to cooperate or not.

"People need to know it's fraught with danger on all sides," he said.

The Tijuana cartel, during its peak in the 1990s and early 2000s, controlled the flow of cocaine, marijuana and other drugs into the United States through Tijuana and Mexicali.

In addition to trafficking drugs, the cartel under Arellano Felix's leadership ran a network of bribes, spies and killings, according to the Mexican attorney general's office.

He was considered the brains and accountant for the organization, the agency said.

Arellano Felix was arrested in 2002 in the state of Puebla. Extradition processes against him began in 2007.

Ronis also represented Benjamin Arellano Felix's brother, Francisco, in 1984.

"I'm no stranger to his immediate family or controversy," he said.