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High-level cartel figure sentenced to 22 years in prison in Chicago

The highest-ranking Sinaloa cartel member ever sentenced in the U.S. was given 22 years in prison Monday by a federal judge in Chicago.

"I tell you -- and I tell you on behalf of all Chicagoans we are tired, tired of drug trafficking, and it continues to hurt this city and this country," U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo said in imposing the sentence. "A strong message needs to go out."

Prosecutors alleged that Alfredo Vasquez-Hernandez was the cartel's logistics coordinator as well as a trusted lieutenant and lifelong friend of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the captured drug lord who was once Mexico's most wanted man.

Vasquez-Hernandez, charged with Guzman in what has been called the most significant drug prosecution in Chicago history, pleaded guilty in April to one count of conspiracy to distribute narcotics for a single 276-kilogram shipment of cocaine from Mexico to Chicago by train.

His attorney, however, contended that twin Chicago brothers whose cooperation was key to the prosecution had exaggerated Vasquez-Hernandez's involvement to help themselves.

The attorney, Paul Brayman, noted that the brothers, Pedro and Margarito Flores, set up the 276-kilo shipment while they were supposed to be working undercover for the Drug Enforcement Administration but never told their government handlers and apparently pocketed millions of dollars from the deal.

The Flores brothers, who ran distribution for the Sinaloa cartel in Chicago, admitted supplying vast quantities of cocaine and heroin to cities across the U.S. and Canada. Yet they face only 10 to 16 years in prison because of their extensive cooperation, according to a 2012 plea agreement unsealed Monday. They are scheduled to be sentenced next month on an undisclosed date.

Brayman told the judge Vasquez-Hernandez showed "no indicia of wealth," driving a 10-year-old car and living in only one house. His family portrayed the slight man with salt-and-pepper hair as a skilled auto-body worker who taught his six sons the value of hard work.

Castillo noted that just because the government hadn't been able to locate Vasquez-Hernandez's wealth did not mean he hadn't concealed a fortune. He called it "nonsensical" that a body-shop worker would stumble into a 600-pound cocaine deal in his first attempt but agreed that the alleged cartel member seemed a blank slate.

"Who is Mr. Vasquez-Hernandez?" the judge asked. "He has no assets -- it's like he's Mr. X. I'd like to know who it is that I'm sentencing."

Prosecutors allege Vasquez-Hernandez was a boyhood friend of "El Chapo" who coordinated the importation of hundreds of tons of narcotics via speedboats, jumbo jets and even submarines.

His wife also took part in the scheme, helping her husband launder cash, Asst. U.S. Attorney Michael Ferrara said Monday. No charges have been filed against her.

According to their plea agreements, The Flores brothers took responsibility for transporting back to Mexico some $938 million in narcotics proceeds from the sale of up to 2000 kilos of cocaine a month during a three-year period from 2005 to 2008. The brothers have agreed to forfeit $3.6 million to the U.S. government as well as other assets such as a Bentley and more than $400,000 in jewelry, according to the plea deals.

But they were allowed to keep a combined $300,000 for their families, according to the plea agreements.

Vasquez-Hernandez, 59, apologized before Castillo handed down what his attorney said amounted to a life sentence. He must serve 85 percent of his term -- almost 19 years in prison.

"First of all I want to thank God because this is coming to an end," said Vazquez-Hernandez through a Spanish interpreter. "I ask for your forgiveness and to have pity on me. I accept responsibility for what I did. I'm sorry."

"I love you dad," his oldest son, Gabriel Vazquez, 43, called from the courtroom gallery as his father was led away after the sentence was imposed. The son later told reporters outside court that he thought the sentence was "harsh...for a man of my dad's caliber."

"He's not the monster that everyone says he is," Vazquez said. "He's a great person. He's been a hard worker all his life."

"He's heartbroken. This is not my dad. This is not him."

Earlier this year, prosecutors revealed that Jesus Vicente Zambada-Niebla, the highest-ranking Sinaloa cartel member arrested on U.S. charges, secretly pleaded guilty in Chicago last year and has been cooperating with authorities.

[Source: By Steve Schmadeke, Chicago Tribune, 24Nov14]

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Human Rights in Mexico
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