A federal judge in Chicago sentenced a former lieutenant to Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo " Guzman to 28 years in prison on Tuesday, imposing the long sentence even after rejecting claims by prosecutors that the trafficker offered street gang members $25,000 to hurt a star government witness.
Judge Ruben Castillo called Jesus Raul Beltran Leon a "very significant drug dealer," saying the 35-year-old Guzman family friend smuggled thousands of pounds of cocaine, heroin and meth into the U.S. for the Sinaloa cartel.
Minutes before, Leon told Castillo he now regretted his life as a trafficker based in Culiacan, Mexico, a cartel stronghold. That life included marathon, cocaine-fueled parties at which Leon sometimes carried a gold-plated AK-47, prosecutors alleged.
"All I thought about was making money. ... I couldn't resist," said Leon, standing before the judge in orange jail clothes. "No matter what happens here today, I am done with that life."
Prosecutors requested a 35-year sentence for Leon, who pleaded guilty to trafficking charges this year. The defense asked for 10, citing Leon's claims that his Mexican military interrogators tortured him before his extradition to Chicago. Leon alleged he had to chew through a plastic bag pulled over his head at one point to avoid suffocating.
His sentence would have been longer had prosecutors proven their claim that, while in a federal jail in Chicago, Leon asked members of the Four Corner Hustlers gang to "split" the "head' of Damaso Lopez Serrano, a fellow Sinaloa trafficker who was prepared to testify against Leon.
Castillo described the evidence prosecutors presented over two days as weak, singling out a secret tape recording of Leon behind bars. On it, Leon is heard saying money was being offered to attack Serrano, but he never says he was the one offering it.
Serrano, who testified at the sentencing, said Leon was especially close to Guzman's sons, Ivan and Alfredo, who Serrano called "El Chapitos," or "the Little Shorties." ''El Chapo," Guzman's nickname, means "Shorty." Guzman was sentenced in New York this year to life in a federal prison.
Castillo grew angry Tuesday when defense attorney Stephen Ralls pointed at prosecutors, suggesting they and DEA agents may have concealed evidence regarding Leon's torture claims.
"Be cautious about expending your credibility with this court," Castillo snapped, telling the lawyer to sit down. "You are tarnishing the reputations of prosecutors in this courtroom. For what? You don't have proof. ... You are not serving your client well right now."
Castillo said he didn't condone torture by Mexico's military, saying the end of obtaining intelligence doesn't justify torture. But he said the deaths of hundreds of Mexican military in the fight against cartels likely underpinned how they sometimes treated suspects.
"The reason they are tough is because they have lost people," he said. "People are dying, day in and day out... including a significant number of military. ... There are going to be hard feelings about that."