Benjamin Arellano-Felix's "Favorable" 25 Year Deal

Former Mexican Cartel leader Benjamin Arellano Felix pleaded guilty Wednesday in San Diego. Imprisoned in Mexico since 2002, he was indicted in 2003 and extradited to San Diego in 2011. He's now 58 years old.

The agreed upon charges and plea agreement are here. There is no reference to cooperation, other a requirement he assist the Government with the forfeiture of his assets.

Arellano pleaded guilty to racketeering (RICO) which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years and one count of money laundering conspiracy which carries a maximum of 5 years. He agreed to a forfeiture of $100 million. The Government will ask the terms be imposed consecutively, for a 25 year total. His guidelines call for a life sentence, but the judge cannot by law impose more than the statutory maximum of 25 years. Under the agreement, Arellano cannot ask for a guideline variance or departure, so in essence, he's agreed to the 20 or 25 year sentence. (The agreement does not prevent him from asking that the sentences run concurrent, for a total of 20 years.)

His conditions of confinement at MCC San Diego are abysmal. He was appealing the denial of a motion to modify them, but agreed to dismiss the appeal as part of his plea deal. [More...]

He stays in an 8-foot by 6-foot cell 24 hours a day every day. He is segregated from other inmates and is not allowed physical contact with family members when they visit.

He is allowed one 15-minute phone call a week, far less than the 300 minutes a week other inmates get. He can shower three times a week and is not allowed to exercise on the high-rise jail’s roof as other inmates can. His exercise allotment is one hour a week in an empty cell identical to his own.... He has to be handcuffed and shackled when he consults with his lawyers in the jail.

According to an affidavit filed by the warden of MCC San Diego (available on PACER), there are 55 to 65 inmates in the SHU (Special Housing Unit) and only 4 showers. SHU inmates get no outdoor exercise.

As to why the Government gave him a 25 year deal when some of his underlings got more time, there are varying opinions. His lawyer suggested the Government may have wanted to avoid a costly trial. More likely in my view:

John Kirby, a former federal prosecutor who co-wrote the 2003 indictment against Arellano Felix, said the case rested entirely on cooperating witnesses, instead of wiretaps or physical evidence. He said those cases weaken over time as witnesses die, get into more trouble or change their minds about testifying.

“This kind of case is based solely on witness testimony, and it slowly disintegrates,” Kirby said. “Maybe from the time when we put it together and now, it’s not such a great case anymore.”

Kirby also says its unlikely prosecutors were motivated by the cost of the trial.

“The government doesn’t care about the expense, the government cares about winning,” he said.

That said, the case has changed a bit since Kirby's involvement. According to a Government motion filed in 2009,

[T]he defendants are charged with 27 separate drug seizures and more than 21 murders or attempted murders, at least 14 of which occurred in Mexico. Over 174,000 documents... have been provided in discovery, as well as 50 video tapes, 32 audio tapes, 5 compact discs (4 of which contain more than 19,000 heavily-coded recordings of radio communications in Spanish covering five months), and a hard drive containing six months of wiretapped phone calls in Spanish.

And according to a motion filed by Arellano's attorney, the Government planned on calling 100 witnesses, including 21 cooperators, and the presentation of its evidence would have taken 3 months.

As to why Arellano may have accepted the deal, considering it's an effective life sentence for a 58 year old, I wouldn't be surprised if the conditions of his pre-trial detention just wore him down. Even Supermax's high security "H" unit has better living conditions (cells are 76 square feet rather than 48). Supermax also has a step-down program where the conditions get less restrictive. BOP also provides programs and television and has better medical care than pre-trial detention centers. Most detainees who know they are unlikely to be acquitted can't wait to get out of the detention centers and into a BOP facility. It is much, much worse for those housed in isolation in the SHU.

The charges in the 2003 indictment included multiple racketeering acts of murder and sought forfeiture of $289 million. A press release from the FBI on the 2009 guilty pleas of several members of the organization is here. One received a 40 year sentence, another 30 years, and another, Armando Martinez-Duarte, a Mexican police official who worked for the organization, got 18 years. One of Arellano's brothers got a life sentence in 2007. While the Government's case may have weakened since 2003, an acquittal at trial would be a longshot.

According to the LA Times, many legal experts are "perplexed" by the "light" deal the Government gave Arellano. I'm perplexed that anyone would characterize a 20 to 25 year sentence for a 58 year old as "light." This is an effective life sentence. And after he finishes serving it, he still has several years left to serve on his Mexican sentence -- in the event Mexico decides to continue the incarceration of a 78 year old man.

Even more perplexing is the Government's and MCC San Diego's claim that his solitary confinement and unduly restrictive conditions of confinement are justified by the threat of violence he poses. Here is one of 25 "trophy photos" filed in the case which were provided in discovery, showing the agents and Arellano after his extradition -- all smiles and arms around each other. He sure doesn't seem dangerous or threatening to the agents.

Larger version here, more here, here and here.

The only benefit to Arellano in this plea deal is the chance he'll live to be 78 and be released and deported to Mexico. It's not much to look forward to, but psychologically, I guess it's better than facing a probable life sentence with no release except in a pine box.

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  • Display: Sort:
    Could he be... (none / 0) (#1)
    by kdog on Thu Jan 05, 2012 at 09:39:17 AM EST
    making sure his family is paid by only forfeiting 100 million, instead of 289 million the government was originally looking to jack?

    Considering how the state routinely purchases testimony in drug cases, how could any jury believe anything any government witness says?

    I certainly got no love for the guy, but he represents half of the police & thieves equation that is killing us, literally and figuratively.  

    According to his attorney (none / 0) (#2)
    by Jeralyn on Thu Jan 05, 2012 at 10:15:50 AM EST
    they will have a hard time collecting the $100 million. The Washington Post article says:

    Arellano Felix also agreed to forfeit $100 million, a figure that will be difficult for the government to collect.

    "Whether there is anything out there that (the government) can seize, I don't know," Colombo said.

    I'll be curious if he ends up getting credit for any of the time he spent in Mexico awaiting extradition. The amount could be zero since he was also serving a Mexican sentence, but sometimes BOP gives it anyway. He was approved for extradition in 2009 (and had fought it for a while, so the U.S. asked earlier.) Should he be given credit, that could cut a few more years off the sentence. The agreement is silent on the amount of pre-confinement credit, but some of the FARC defendants and other Colombians have gotten it anyway. Maybe he's planning on giving that a try, something that wouldn't matter if he got an actual life sentence which has 0 good time.


    Seriously ? (none / 0) (#3)
    by ScottW714 on Thu Jan 05, 2012 at 11:02:13 AM EST
    A Cartel leader who is essentially in jail for life because of witnesses is surely a danger to those witnesses and their families.

    For someone who is always so quick to point out how speculation and non-sense will not be tolerated, yet a photo with smiles seems to be enough proof that he not a violent man, gimme a break.  I agree with the treatment, no way to treat human beings, but you'll need more then a photo to convince me a leader of a major Cartel isn't a violent person.

    Look, a smiling teddy bear with his kid... Sins of My Father (Official Trailer)

    That being said, this man is a product of our drug policy, which of course hasn't curtailed drugs in America.  One would think the capturing head of a major smuggling ring would have had at the very least some small ripple in the availability and/or price of drugs.  It hasn't, and from what I gather, drugs have actually decreases in price since I was in high school while potency has increased.

    We have no one to blame but ourselves for this violence, which is much like the violence of prohibition, the harder we push, the more violent they become.

    In my view, the U.S. government is (none / 0) (#4)
    by oculus on Thu Jan 05, 2012 at 11:09:56 AM EST
    trying to avoid escape and also to avoid defendant running his cartel from MCC.  Probably also aware of butchered bodies sealed in oil drums.  Violent?  Yes.  

    Violent, yeah... (none / 0) (#5)
    by kdog on Thu Jan 05, 2012 at 12:52:32 PM EST
    Indiscriminately violent as to where he is a threat to other prisoners or guards?  Assuming facts not in evidence ma'am:)

    As for running sh*t from inside, thats impossible to stop absent uber-draconian measures beyond even these draconian measures.


    You missed my point--no communication (none / 0) (#6)
    by oculus on Thu Jan 05, 2012 at 05:04:40 PM EST
    with other inmates.  Limited contact with correctional staff members.  

    Essentially, (none / 0) (#7)
    by Zorba on Thu Jan 05, 2012 at 05:19:48 PM EST
    for all intents and purposes, solitary confinement.

    Think Pelican Bay. (none / 0) (#8)
    by oculus on Thu Jan 05, 2012 at 05:27:20 PM EST
    I'm sure (none / 0) (#9)
    by Zorba on Thu Jan 05, 2012 at 05:36:54 PM EST
    If anyone treated an animal like that, they would be in trouble.  Apparently, it's okay to treat people like that.  I'm not saying that Arellano-Felix is a "model" person.  He's not a good guy, and I'm not sure that I ever want him out in society again.  But can we not find some way to confine those people that society deems truly dangerous without torturing them psychologically?  Their humanity may be in question, but that certainly doesn't say much about our humanity.  How does this make "us" any better than "them"?

    Exactly (5.00 / 0) (#11)
    by ScottW714 on Fri Jan 06, 2012 at 10:13:32 AM EST
    At some point it's not about them, it's about us.

    The guys is a scum bag, no doubt, and more then likely is responsible for many deaths, but the reason he is in prison is because we as a society don't condemn inhumane behavior.

    We certainly shouldn't condemn inhumane behavior with inhumane behavior, it simply defies logic and IMO makes our society more violent as a whole.

    Plus we are holding him responsible for our failures to keep other people from running criminal enterprises from w/i the prison system.  They are punishing him for what he may do based on other people.  It's not right.


    And If Your Arguement is... (5.00 / 0) (#12)
    by ScottW714 on Fri Jan 06, 2012 at 10:23:16 AM EST
    ..."He is treated better then GITMO detainees."  Well that bar can't go much lower, I guess he is being treated better then Stalin's political enemies or Jews in WWII Germany as well, but what does that prove ?  It could be worse, no exactly the American Motto.

    If that's your angle, why not compare him to the people getting treated better, which would be a far longer list.  But that has nothing to do with anything, we shouldn't be viewing treatment based on others, it should be viewed in regards to the law.  Our worse treatment of people isn't some bar we whip out to prove others are being treated better than the worse possible way...  


    He's got more personal space and freedom (none / 0) (#10)
    by oculus on Thu Jan 05, 2012 at 08:28:56 PM EST
    than the people we have detained forever at Gitmo.  Maybe his attorney is correct:  we get lots of detail on the violence just across the border caused by cartels such as the one this defendant leads.