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Former Mexican kingpin pleads guilty

By Mariano Castillo and Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
updated 7:12 PM EST, Wed January 4, 2012
Benjamin Arrellano Felix is shown in this undated photo supplied by Mexican authorities in 2002.
Benjamin Arrellano Felix is shown in this undated photo supplied by Mexican authorities in 2002.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Prosecutor: Guilty plea "marks the end of his reign of murder, mayhem and corruption"
  • An attorney for Benjamin Arellano Felix calls the plea deal "very favorable"
  • Arellano Felix pleads guilty to racketeering, court documents show
  • The plea agreement calls for a maximum of 25 years in prison

(CNN) -- A former leader of Mexico's Tijuana drug cartel pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court in San Diego on Wednesday to charges of racketeering and conspiracy to launder money, according to court documents.

The plea agreement signed by prosecutors and Benjamin Arellano Felix calls for a maximum of 25 years in prison and the forfeiture of $100 million to the United States.

"Arellano Felix led the most violent criminal organization in this part of the world for two decades," U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy said in a statement. "Today's guilty plea marks the end of his reign of murder, mayhem and corruption, and his historic admission of guilt sends a clear message to the Mexican cartel leaders operating today: the United States will spare no effort to investigate, extradite, and prosecute you for your criminal activities."

A lawyer representing Arellano Felix described the deal as "very favorable."

"It gives Mr. Arellano Felix the hope of one day being released from custody and returning to his family in Mexico," attorney Anthony E. Colombo Jr. said after Wednesday's hearing.

A sentencing hearing is scheduled for April 2, attorneys said.

Arellano Felix, 58, had been named in two U.S. indictments alleging conspiracy, money laundering, drug trafficking, operating a drug smuggling organization and murder. If convicted on those charges, he faced between 40 and 140 years behind bars, Colombo said.

Beyond racketeering and conspiracy to launder money, other charges against Arellano Felix will be dismissed at the sentencing hearing, Colombo said.

Arellano Felix was one of seven brothers who ran the cartel until he and the majority of the leadership were arrested.

Officials have said the cartel was weakened as a result but is still considered one of Mexico's major drug trafficking operations.

Wednesday's plea agreement says he was the "leader, organizer and ultimate decision-maker" for the cartel, also known as the Arellano Felix Organization, from at least 1986 until his March 9, 2002, arrest.

William Sherman, acting special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's San Diego office, said in a statement Wednesday that authorities had "effectively dismantled this once powerful cartel from the top down."

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 known for 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 has been convicted of organized crime activities in Mexico and served nine years there before his extradition to the United States last year.

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

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