US-born cartel figure pleads guilty in San Diego

SAN DIEGO (AP) — A U.S.-born lieutenant of a Mexican cartel that smuggles drugs to California pleaded guilty to criminal charges in an agreement with prosecutors to limit his prison sentence to 30 years.

Armando Villareal Heredia, 35, acknowledged in his plea agreement that he participated in murder, kidnappings and the smuggling of methamphetamine on behalf of a Tijuana-based cartel led by Fernando Sanchez Arellano.

The San Diego native can be sentenced to a maximum sentence of life in federal prison for racketeering conspiracy and conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, but prosecutors agreed to ask for 30 years.

Villareal Heredia is the lead defendant among 43 people charged in a 2010 indictment targeting the organization of Sanchez Arellano, a nephew of the brothers who founded the infamous Arellano Felix cartel in the 1980s. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration still considers Sanchez Arellano one of the most significant drug traffickers in the area but the powerful Sinaloa cartel has gained an upper hand in the region.

Known as “Gordo” — or “Fatty” in English — Villareal was arrested by Mexican authorities in July 2011 in the northern city of Hermosillo at the request of U.S. officials. He was extradited last year to face charges in San Diego.

Villareal is the 40th defendant to plead guilty in the case, according to the U.S. attorney’s office. They include Jesus Quinonez, a former Mexican law enforcement official who worked closely with U.S. authorities as the Baja California state attorney general’s international liaison.

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