- Associated Press - Monday, April 2, 2012

SAN DIEGO — A U.S. judge sentenced former Mexican drug kingpin BenjaminArellanoFelix on Monday to 25 years in prison.

He was also ordered to forfeit $100 million.

ArellanoFelix once led a Tijuana-based cartel that was one of the world’s most powerful drug-trafficking organizations.

He pleaded guilty last year to racketeering and conspiracy to launder money after being extradited from Mexico.

ArellanoFelix’s cartel slowly lost its grip after Mexican authorities arrested him in 2002.

In an 11th-hour twist, ArellanoFelix, 58, fired his attorney just before his sentencing, fueling speculation that he may be having second thoughts about his plea.

He gave no explanation for wanting to change lawyers in his request to U.S. District Judge Larry Burns two weeks ago.

Prosecutors were seeking the 25-year sentence for racketeering and conspiracy to launder money, saying ArellanoFelix led one of Mexico’s largest drug trafficking organizations for more than 15 years and oversaw the shipment of hundreds of tons of cocaine and marijuana to the United States.

He ordered kidnappings and killings of informants and potential witnesses, oversaw widespread corruption of Mexican law enforcement and laundered hundreds of millions of dollars to Mexico.

ArellanoFelix has “destroyed lives and caused untold suffering on both sides of the border,” prosecutors said in a court filing last week.

Francisco Javier ArellanoFelix, a younger brother who led the cartel after Benjamin was arrested in Mexico in 2002, was sentenced in San Diego to life in prison in 2007, a year after he was captured by U.S. authorities in international waters off Mexico’s Baja California coast.

Jesus Labra Aviles, a lieutenant under BenjaminArellanoFelix, was sentenced in San Diego to 40 years in prison in 2010.

It is unclear why prosecutors agreed to a lighter sentence for BenjaminArellanoFelix, who was extradited from Mexico in April 2011. He is one of the highest-profile kingpins to face prosecution in the United States.

His cartel, portrayed in the Steven Soderbergh film “Traffic,” slowly lost its grip after BenjaminArellanoFelix was arrested in 2002. A month earlier, his brother, Ramon, the cartel’s top enforcer, died in a shootout with Mexican authorities.

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