NEW: U.S. officials describe conviction as a victory for people on both sides of the border
Edgar Valdez Villareal pleads guilty to drug and money laundering charges
Valdez is known as "La Barbie," reportedly because of his blue eyes and light complexion
A one-time Texas high school football player who achieved notoriety as an alleged cartel kingpin in Mexico pleaded guilty Wednesday to drug trafficking charges in a U.S. federal court.
The unlikely rise of Edgar Valdez Villareal as an American in the Mexican drug cartel hierarchy made his case unique, a federal prosecutor told reporters shortly after the court hearing.
So did his nickname, “La Barbie,” which his high school football coach reportedly gave him because of his blue eyes and light complexion.
His penchant for expensive polo jerseys created a fashion trend known as the “Narco Polo,” and a Hollywood film about his life, dubbed “American Drug Lord,” is already in the works.
But the scene that played out in an Atlanta courthouse on Wednesday was far from glamorous.
Wearing a khaki prison uniform, Valdez, 42, looked much leaner than he did in photos of his 2010 arrest in Mexico, which showed him smiling before the cameras.
He answered, “yes, your honor,” to a series of questions from the judge, ultimately using that phrase to say he pleaded guilty to charges of cocaine importation, cocaine distribution and money laundering.
He is scheduled to be sentenced in March and faces a minimum penalty of 10 years and maximum penalty of life in prison.
Rising through the ranks
Valdez was born in Laredo, Texas, a key hub for cross-border commerce, legal and illegal.
He is accused of smuggling 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of cocaine across the border there every week for much of 2005, U.S. authorities have said.
In six months of 2005, Valdez sent more than 1,500 kilograms of cocaine to Atlanta alone, U.S. Attorney John Horn said Wednesday. But the quantity of drug shipments Valdez made as he climbed the cartel ranks is likely far larger, Horn said.
“We’re talking about tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars,” Horn said.
Valdez never stepped foot in Atlanta, Horn said, but he managed a network of operatives in the city who did his bidding as “truckload after truckload of Mr. Valdez’s cocaine crossed the border and traveled to Atlanta for repackaging and redistribution across the Eastern United States.”
Across the border, Valdez rose up the ranks of Mexican drug traffickers, allegedly being a one-time top lieutenant of Mexico’s most wanted man, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
Valdez later joined the breakaway Beltran Leyva cartel, but the leader of that group, Arturo Beltran Leyva, was killed in a shootout with Mexican officials in late 2009. Beltran’s brother Carlos was arrested, leaving Valdez in a fight to fill a power vacuum in one of Mexico’s most powerful drug cartels.
Nickname and sense of style aside, La Barbie was no softy.
He made his name in the Mexican drug underworld as a hitman, authorities say. In the mid-2000s, two drug cartels – the Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel – fought a long and bloody turf battle for Nuevo Laredo smuggling routes. Valdez was one of the soldiers in those battles.
Extradition came after ‘El Chapo’ escape
Mexican authorities touted his 2010 arrest as a high-profile win in its drug war. At the time, he was on the list of most-wanted drug traffickers in both Mexico and the United States. The United States offered a $2 million reward for his capture.
After his arrest, the Mexican attorney general’s office published a video of his confession, in which he said he managed lucrative drug routes from Panama to the United States.
Valdez spent five years in a Mexican prison, where according to The New Yorker, he shopped around intelligence on other traffickers and corrupt Mexican officials in exchange for a reduced sentence.
Valdez’ former boss, Guzman, was arrested in 2014. But the following year, he escaped from prison, causing great embarrassment to the Mexican government. Shortly afterward, Mexico extradited high-profile traffickers – including Valdez – to the United States.
U.S. officials praised Mexican authorities Wednesday for capturing Valdez and sending him to the United States to face charges, touting his conviction as a victory for people on both sides of the border.
“These things don’t happen without the cooperation of our partners in Mexico,” said Daniel Salter, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s special agent in charge in Atlanta.
Now, he said, authorities have their sights set on a another target.
“We’re concerned about catching Chapo again. … That’s a priority for us,” Salter said.
CNN’s Evan Perez and Josh Gaynor contributed to this report.