International money launderer Edgar “Zorro” Valencia Ortega was sentenced to eight years in prison Friday by a federal judge who said Ortega started “out right at the top” of Mexico’s notorious Sinaloa drug cartel.
The prison term was the shortest handed out to any of the Sinaloa members sentenced to date in connection with the network led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Ferrara conceded that Ortega was the lowest-level player of the 19 defendants in the case.
U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo noted that while Ortega laundered millions of dollars in drug money and trafficked nearly 150 kilos of cocaine into the U.S., the Guadalajara native had a relatively brief involvement in the cartel. Ortega grew up alongside the children of high-ranking Sinaloa members, and was making major deals for the cartel almost immediately. Ortega, 29, had only a two-year run as an international drug trafficker and cartel money man before he was arrested.
“I’ve said from time to time that one doesn’t start out at the top” of an international narcotic trafficking ring, Castillo said. “I have to admit, you were the exception to that rule. There were no small transactions that got you started. You had the capability of starting out right at the top.”
Ortega grew up in Guadalajara, a member of a well-off family with legitimate business in the meatpacking industry. But he also grew up alongside the children of high-ranking members of the Sinaloa cartel, building friendships that allowed him to rise quickly in the organization when he forsook the meat trade for narcotics trafficking.
His nickname was “Zorro,” Spanish for “The Fox.”
Ortega pleaded guilty to a money laundering conspiracy in April. Ortega laundered between $1.5 million and $3.5 million to Mexico for the cartel led by notorious imprisoned Guzman, federal prosecutors say. One of Ortega’s courier was intercepted with $149,050 in May 2013, and another seizure a month later netted $325,000, according to prosecutors.
Ferrara noted that Ortega was not implicated in crimes of violence committed by the cartels, but set up transactions that hid drug money, and, on several occasions trafficked dozens of kilos of cocaine.
And his brief career with the cartel was costly. Ortega’s brother and one-time co-defendant, Hector, was murdered last year in Mexico, a slaying authorities believe was tied to Hector’s role in drug trafficking.
Wearing headphones so a translator could decode the proceedings into Spanish, Ortega kept his head bowed even as he addressed the judge. In a brief statement, he apologized to the court, the United States, his family and his mother.
“I know that she has suffered through this in a way one cannot imagine, because of the loss of my brother and because I’m locked up,” Ortega said through a translator. “This business that my brother and I selected, it only leaves you with these two roads: Death and jail. That’s all I can say.”
Ortega also took a commission while brokering cocaine deals, the feds say. After he helped negotiate a June 2013 deal with a customer in Los Angeles, 41 kilograms of cocaine and $325,000 were seized from a courier tasked with delivering the drugs. The feds seized 93 kilograms of cocaine in September 2013 while they said Ortega was in the midst of another deal.
“Mr. Valencia Ortega and his siblings grew up with the children of high level Sinaloa cartel members,” defense attorney Lisa Wood wrote in a memo late last week to Castillo.
“This social circle provided Mr. Valencia Ortega access to individuals engaged in large scale criminal activity relatively quickly — much more quickly, at least, than someone without such a network. It also provided him with credibility that outsiders did not have.”