An American man who prosecutors say rose to the highest levels of a prominent Mexican gang has been sentenced to 49 years in prison for coordinating the shipment of an estimated $192m in cocaine into the US.
Edgar Valdez-Villarreal was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, where he earned the nickname “La Barbie” because of his light complexion and eyes. Prosecutors say he started dealing marijuana in Laredo as early as 2000, then moved on to selling cocaine to customers in New Orleans and Memphis.
He eventually linked up with associates of the Sinaloa Cartel and Joaquin Guzman-Loera – aka infamous Mexican drug lord “El Chapo” – with whom he coordinated shipments of cocaine into Mexico from Colombia and other South American countries, according to prosecutors.
By 2004, the group had started exporting cocaine from Colombia to the US via Mexico. They shipped the drugs in tractor trailer loads of up to 300 kilograms twice per week, prosecutors said, then smuggled currency back across the border to their supervisors in Mexico.
US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents built a case against Valdez-Villarreal using wiretaps, witness testimony, and seizures of over 100 kilograms of cocaine and $4m of drug proceeds, according to the US Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of Georgia.
Valdez-Villarreal was arrested in Mexico in 2010, after being placed on a list of most-wanted drug traffickers in both Mexico and the US. The US once offered a $2m reward for his capture, according to CNN.
He was convicted of conspiracy to import cocaine, conspiracy to distribute cocaine, and conspiracy to launder money in 2016 after pleading guilty. He was slated to be sentenced in March of 2016. It was unclear what prompted the more than two-year delay.
On Monday, US District Judge William Duffey sentenced Valdez-Villarreal to 49 years and one month in prison, plus 10 years supervised release – meaning the 44-year-old will likely spend most of the rest of his life in prison. He was also ordered to forfeit the $192m, which prosecutors said was a conservative estimate of the value of cocaine he’d shipped into the US.
“Valdez-Villareal imported tons of cocaine into the U.S. while ruthlessly working his way up the ranks of one of Mexico’s most powerful cartels, leaving in his wake countless lives destroyed by drugs and violence,” said US Attorney Byung J Pak in a statement.
He added: “The highest levels of Mexican drug cartel should know that, like La Barbie, they will be held accountable for their crimes.”
Valdez-Villarreal’s seven siblings flooded the courtroom for his sentencing hearing, according to the Associated Press, where his brother and one of his sisters pleaded with the judge for leniency. The sister, a prosecutor in Texas, told Mr Duffey that her brother had strayed from his humble upbringing, but remained a good person at heart.