Extradited from Mexico, cartel leader gets nearly 50 years

A Texas-born man who prosecutors say rose to the top ranks of a Mexican drug cartel using ruthless violence to defeat rivals and secure control of drug trafficking routes was sentenced Monday by a federal judge in Atlanta to serve nearly five decades in prison.

Edgar Valdez Villarreal, known as "La Barbie" because of his light eyes and complexion, was sentenced to serve 49 years and one month and was also ordered to forfeit $192 million, which prosecutors say is a conservative estimate of the value of the cocaine Valdez was responsible for importing into the United States.

Valdez, 44, was born and raised in the border town of Laredo, Texas, and began dealing marijuana when he was still a linebacker on the football team, prosecutors said. He climbed the ranks of the Beltran Leyva cartel at a time when the gang's leaders were associated with Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and the Sinaloa Cartel, they said.

He enjoyed a flashy lifestyle and cultivated an image in the media to impress people and intimidate his rivals, prosecutor Elizabeth Hathaway said in court. He wore nice suits and owned luxury homes, including a ranch with a zoo that housed a lion.

His security team captured a member of a rival gang known as the Zetas who had been sent to assassinate Valdez during a turf war. A video shows Valdez and others interrogating the man and then shows him being shot in the head, prosecutors said. Valdez had the video sent to news outlets and even to law enforcement in the U.S.

At his sentencing hearing, one of his six sisters and his brother pleaded with the judge for leniency. His parents, other siblings and nieces and nephews, packed the courtroom.

Carla Valdez, who works as a prosecutor in Texas, told U.S. District Judge William Duffey that she and her siblings were raised by humble, hardworking parents who taught them strong values and morals. She acknowledged that her brother strayed from that upbringing but insisted he's a good person.

Duffey said he struggled to understand how Valdez got so off track despite his strong family background.

"Why are you a prosecutor and why is your brother a seriously evil criminal?" Duffey asked Carla Valdez.

That's a question her family asks every day, she said.

After Mexican marines killed Arturo Beltran Leyva in December 2009, Valdez and Beltran Leyva's brother, Hector, began a bloody fight for control that left dismembered and decapitated bodies in the streets and often hanging from bridges in Cuernavaca and Acapulco.

Mexican federal police arrested Valdez and four others at a woody vacation home outside Mexico City in August 2010. At the time, then-Mexican President Felipe Calderon called Valdez "one of the most-wanted criminals in Mexico and abroad."

He was among 13 people extradited to the U.S. from Mexico in September 2015. He pleaded guilty in January 2016 to charges of conspiring to import and distribute cocaine and conspiring to launder money.

Defense attorney Buddy Parker stressed that his client cooperated with U.S. law enforcement agents even before his 2010 arrest, putting his own life in jeopardy. Valdez considered surrendering to law enforcement, but feared it would seriously endanger his family, Parker said as he asked the judge to stick to the low end of the sentencing guidelines and give his client 30 years.

Duffey was skeptical, noting that even as he communicated with law enforcement, Valdez was arranging for regular shipments of cocaine into the U.S.

Hathaway seized on that skepticism when asking the judge to impose a 55-year sentence. By providing information to U.S. authorities, she said, Valdez was "structuring a situation where his competitors were being taken out by law enforcement."

She acknowledged that Valdez has cooperated and saved the government money and effort by quickly pleading guilty, but she argued that a harsh sentence was needed to send a message to other traffickers.

Valdez told the judge he accepted responsibility for his wrongdoing and apologized to his family. He said he'd like for his life to serve as an example to young people about the dangers of getting mixed up in drugs.

"I'm not a bad person," Valdez told the judge. "I am a good person who has made bad decisions."

Duffey wasn't swayed, telling Valdez that his actions were despicable and amounted to a betrayal of his family and his country. He said he didn't get a real sense of remorse from Valdez for flooding American communities with drugs.

"You haven't earned the right to live in an American community," Duffey said.