A federal judge in Chicago sentenced a reputed onetime lieutenant in the Sinaloa drug cartel on Tuesday to 28 years in prison but also rejected a claim that the man offered $25,000 for the severe beating of a godson of drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera.
Declaring that “suspicion doesn’t win,” U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo also angrily pushed back against defense claims that U.S. drug agents had been complicit in the alleged torture of Jesus Raul Beltran Leon after his capture by Mexican marines.
“That’s not the country that I belong to, where suspicion is enough to win,” Castillo said as he nearly shouted down one of Beltran Leon’s attorneys. “You need proof.”
Moments before he learned his sentence, Beltran Leon apologized for his crimes and said, “I am done with that life. This life has caused nothing but sadness.”
Castillo then labeled Beltran Leon “a serious drug conspirator at a high level” and decried Mexico’s bloody drug war while announcing Beltran Leon’s punishment.
“Mexico is tired of this violence, and so is the United States,” Castillo said at the end of a two-day hearing at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse.
Prosecutors say Beltran Leon worked with Guzman’s sons to smuggle massive shipments of drugs into the United States. In April, he admitted his role in the sale of 46 kilograms of cocaine in Los Angeles between June 8 and June 10, 2013.
Beltran Leon’s sentencing hearing opened with the stunning allegation that he had offered $25,000 for someone to severely beat Guzman godson Damaso Lopez Serrano. Andrew Johnston, an attempted bank robber who had been imprisoned with both men at the downtown Metropolitan Correctional Center, had secretly recorded Beltran Leon talking about the alleged plot.
He said Beltran Leon decided to plead guilty rather than face a trial in which Serrano could testify against him.
Though Johnston said he first heard the offer was for $5,000, he recorded Beltran Leon saying, “I heard 25,000.”
Johnston also could be heard on the recording mentioning the Four Corner Hustlers, a brutal Chicago street gang. Prosecutors played the recording Monday.
When the hearing resumed Tuesday, Beltran Leon’s lawyer Beau Brindley attacked Johnston’s credibility by forcing him to acknowledge he had previously accused federal authorities, including Chief U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer, of lying about him. He even accused a federal agent of tampering with a recording.
Court records suggest prosecutors had planned to call an additional witness to discuss the alleged plot against Serrano. But testimony ended after Johnston finished.
Moments later, Castillo rejected the allegation, saying there were “too many stretches” and that Johnston’s “credibility is just about nowhere in this building.”
The ruling meant the judge wouldn’t consider the claim when sentencing Beltran Leon, who still faced a potential life sentence.
Castillo did say he would temper Beltran Leon’s sentence because of Beltran Leon’s claim he had been tortured by Mexican marines after his capture in 2014. He did so even after Beltran Leon’s attorneys earned an angry rebuke by suggesting, with little evidence, that U.S. drug agents had been complicit.
“How is that any different than the government trying to say, ‘Well, your client was trying to have somebody beaten up at the MCC’ but they can’t prove it?” Castillo said.
The judge added, “let [Beltran Leon] take the witness stand right now, and see how that goes for him.”
Beltran Leon’s attorneys declined the offer.
“And there’s a reason for that,” Castillo said. “And any lawyer in this business knows the reason behind that. So please don’t do this.”