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Beyond the Bubble: Quiet Day in Court for a Legendary Drug Kingpin

| April 2, 2012
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Rachael Myrow here, host of the California Report, with an AM post from somewhere else in California. We’re in this Golden State together. Right?

Drug kingpins come. Drug kingpins go. So Hollywood tells us.  But it doesn’t always end in a dramatic shootout, a la “Scarface.”

The real cases often go out quietly in court. At least, in dramatic contrast to the bloodshed and terror that preceded the sentencing.

Hence the palpable disappointment you read as newspaper reporters set up a little court hearing later today in San Diego, wherein Benjamin Arellano Felix is expected to face sentencing for a fraction of what many in US law enforcement would like to sentence him for, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Arellano Felix (you may be “remember” his cartel as the one fictionalized in the Steven Soderbergh film “Traffic”) was captured by Mexican authorities in 2002 and extradited to the United States last year. Border beat reporter Amy Isackson broke it down for the California Report last May.

In January, he pleaded guilty to racketeering and money-laundering charges, acknowledging he led a highly profitable business that used its profits to bribe Mexican officials and equip assassination squads.

A judge is expected to sentence him to a prison term of 25 years maximum. If he gets that much time, Arellano Felix would be in his early 80s when released – but then he’d head back to Mexico to serve more time there.

The LA Times says legal observers speculate prosecutors negotiated a plea agreement to avoid a potentially costly trial, or “because evidence from crimes that stretch back to 1991 had gone stale.”

The DEA-led investigation of the Tijuana cartel was among the biggest ever undertaken against Mexican organized crime, spanning two decades. It involved a multitude of local and federal agencies and featured unprecedented cooperation from Mexican law enforcement officials, some of whom were brutally slain by cartel assassins who also turned their guns on the news media and religious leaders.

The cartel was responsible for as many as 1,000 homicides, according to investigators, and it popularized the grim practice of dissolving victims in barrels of caustic liquids. Many of the cartel’s enforcers were San Diego gang members, some trained by Middle Eastern mercenaries.

San Diego’s Union Tribune quotes David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, saying “In a lot of ways, Benjamin will be going behind bars with lots of secrets.”

So what happens after that? Same as always, across the US, across Mexico. At least when “The Wire” tells this never ending story of drugs in America, it gets to run Solomon Burke under the montage. That was some good TV.

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Category: Business and Finance, California History, Courts, Crime, Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, Economics, Federal Government, International, Law Enforcement, Legal

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About the Author ()

Rachael Myrow hosts the California Report for KQED. Over 17 years in public radio, she's worked for Marketplace and KPCC, filed for NPR and The World, and developed a sizable tea collection that's become the envy of the KQED newsroom. She specializes in politics, economics and history in California - but for emotional balance, she also covers food and its relationship to health and happiness. Reach Rachael Myrow at rmyrow@kqed.org.

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