A top lieutenant in the drug cartel led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera pleaded guilty to a drug conspiracy Wednesday in federal court in Chicago.
Jesus Raul Beltran Leon, 35, admitted his role in the sale of 46 kilograms of cocaine sold in Los Angeles between June 8 and June 10 in 2013.
Beltran Leon now faces a maximum penalty of life in prison. He admitted his guilt in court after signing a written plea declaration, meaning he did not reach a deal with the government.
Sentencing in federal court in Chicago was set for July 10, but it could take multiple hearings to decide his fate.
Prosecutors asked for time to bring in witnesses to testify. Defense attorneys said they want that testimony to happen before the sentencing hearing.
Beltran Leon’s guilty plea scuttles a trial set for next month that appeared to be on track until last week, when Wednesday’s hearing was announced. It would have followed a three-month blockbuster trial in Brooklyn that ended earlier this year with the conviction of “El Chapo,” the infamous Sinaloa kingpin.
Guzman now likely faces a lengthy, if not permanent, visit to the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.
Unusual security also surrounded the hearing Wednesday in the 25th floor courtroom of U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo in Chicago. Observers had to walk through a metal detector before entering Castillo’s courtroom to watch Beltran Leon plead guilty, and the general public was not allowed to bring in electronic devices.
Federal prosecutors say Beltran Leon once worked with Guzman’s sons, Alfredo and Ivan Guzman, to smuggle massive shipments of drugs into the United States. Beltran Leon is related to “El Chapo” by marriage. And he once allegedly bragged he was “one of the first people” to see Guzman after Guzman escaped from a Mexican prison in 2001.
Guzman got out of the prison by bribing guards and supposedly hiding in a laundry cart. He was captured in 2014 but escaped from prison again in 2015, only to be recaptured in 2016. He was brought to the United States a year later to stand trial.
Beltran Leon was captured in Mexico in 2014 and extradited to Chicago in 2017. He has accused U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents of watching as Mexican soldiers tortured him after his capture in November 2014. Castillo acknowledged the allegations were disturbing, but he refused to dismiss the case over it.
The case against Beltran Leon dates back to a far-reaching indictment the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago obtained against Guzman and his reputed associates in 2009. Key evidence from that case made its way into Guzman’s trial in Brooklyn.
Had Beltran Leon gone to trial, prosecutors planned to call high-ranking members of the Sinaloa cartel and others to testify about the movement of millions of dollars in drug proceeds, about an attempt to smuggle drugs into the United States through a tunnel, about close calls with law enforcement and about the greeting party that followed Guzman’s 2001 prison break.
Beltran Leon allegedly told one member of the Sinaloa cartel he had been with Ivan Guzman when “El Chapo” called with instructions to pick him up. Beltran Leon said he came along for the ride.
Another Sinaloa member had been expected to testify that he’d invested in a two-ton marijuana load in Mexico headed for the United States. The plan had been to smuggle it across the border through a tunnel, but law enforcement found the tunnel first.
Three years later, Beltran Leon suddenly darted into that cartel member’s car. He explained he had just been at a restaurant with Alfredo Guzman, Ivan Guzman and others. A waiter then warned, “the government was coming,” prosecutors said.
Beltran Leon said they swapped clothes with some waiters and made a break for it.
Yet another potential witness worked as a money courier for Beltran Leon in 2012 and 2013. That courier was expected to testify about deliveries of drug proceeds that occurred at least 10 times a month, for an estimated total of up to $6 million per month.
Beltran Leon let the courier keep one half of 1 percent of the money, prosecutors said. But if the courier brought the drug money down to Mexico, the courier received 1 percent.
Contributing: Frank Main