A Texan who ascended the ranks of one of Mexico’s most ruthless drug cartels was sentenced Monday to 49 years and one month in prison and fined $192,000, the Justice Department says.
Edgar Valdez-Villareal, better known as “La Barbie,” a leader in the Beltran-Leyva Cartel, pleaded guilty in January 2016 to conspiracy to import cocaine, conspiracy to distribute cocaine and conspiracy to launder money.
A 49-year federal prison term likely means the 44-year-old Valdez-Villareal will spend the rest of his life incarcerated. If he’s alive at the end of his sentence, he will serve 10 years of probation, the Justice Department said.
“Valdez-Villareal imported tons of cocaine into the U.S. while ruthlessly working his way up the ranks of one of Mexico’s most powerful cartels, leaving in his wake countless lives destroyed by drugs and violence,” US Attorney Byung Pak said in a statement. “The highest levels of Mexican drug cartel should know that, like La Barbie, they will be held accountable for their crimes.”
Over the course of two decades, the Laredo, Texas, native and onetime high school football player trafficked marijuana before developing a network – beginning in New Orleans and Memphis, Tennessee – by which he was regularly shipping between 150 and 180 kilograms of cocaine into multiple cities, Pak said.
Life of crime
After connecting with Arturo Beltran Leyva and later Joaquin Guzman-Loera, aka El Chapo, Valdez-Villareal began using speedboats to transport cocaine out of Colombia and other South American countries into Mexico and then on to the United States, the US attorney said.
At one point, Valdez-Villareal was El Chapo’s top lieutenant, prosecutors said. Mexican Marines killed Beltran Leyva in a 2009 shootout.
In 2004, the Justice Department says, he began shipping cocaine from Mexico into Atlanta and Memphis on the back of tractor trailers. Twice a week, he’d run 300 kilograms (661 pounds) to his customers and ferry the money back across the Mexican border. In six months of 2005, he shipped 1,500 kilograms (3,307 pounds) into Atlanta alone without ever stepping foot in the city, prosecutors said.
“At the same time, Valdez-Villareal became a top-level enforcer for the cartel and coordinated a war against his rivals, the Gulf Cartel and Zetas in Mexico,” the Justice Department news release said.
Valdez-Villareal made his name in the drug underworld as a hitman, authorities say. In the mid-2000s, the Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel fought a long and bloody turf war for Nuevo Laredo smuggling routes, and Valdez was a key soldier in the battles.
Sentence a long time coming
Using wiretaps and witness testimony, the Drug Enforcement Administration built a case against Valdez-Villareal resulting in the seizure of 100 kilograms of cocaine and $4 million.
A high school football coach reportedly gave Valdez-Villareal his nickname because of his blue eyes and light complexion, and he was known for wearing Polo-brand jerseys. When he stepped into an Atlanta federal courthouse in 2016, he wore a khaki prison outfit and smiled for the cameras.
He answered, “Yes, your honor,” to a judge’s questions before pleading guilty to the three charges, which commanded a minimum sentence of 10 years in prison.
He was slated to be sentenced in March 2016, according to officials at the time. It’s not clear why it took more than two years to sentence him.
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.
Kingpins shipped north
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.
El Chapo was arrested again in 2016, around the time of Valdez-Villareal’s guilty plea. He, too, was extradited to the Untied States and is scheduled to face a judge and jury later this year.
CNN’s Catheine Shoichet, Gustavo Valdes and Mariano Castillo contributed to this report.