The Mexican-American drug trafficker who rose through the cartel ranks in Mexico and became known as "La Barbie" declared himself guilty of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and money laundering in US federal court on Wednesday.
Edgar Valdez Villarreal, 42, made his admission in a brief "change of plea" hearing in the US District Court in Atlanta.
Valdez, who was captured in 2010 in Mexico and extradited last September, had initially pleaded not guilty to these charges before US district judge William Duffey in October 2015. Judge Duffey also presided over the hearing today in which Valdez changed his plea.
The reversal raises the possibility that La Barbie obtained a guarantee of a more lenient sentence, following a method frequently used by US authorities with high-profile drug lords who are taken into US custody. The deal could reflect either the weakness of the prosecution case or a commitment from La Barbie to provide information about other traffickers.
"They flipped him," said Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope.
The drug boss's attorney, Wilmer "Buddy" Parker, confirmed the change of plea but would not comment on any possible deals. "I'm not commenting on that question at all," he said. "It was represented in court but there is no agreement."
Valdez acquired his "La Barbie" nickname while growing up a high school football player in Laredo, Texas, where he was born. He later began trafficking drugs across the US border and gradually built a profile in a trafficking group known as the Sinaloa federation for his brutal use of violence against rivals.
The Sinaloa federation split in 2008 when the part of the organization headed by the Beltran Leyva family began a vicious turf war with the rest. La Barbie went with the Beltran Leyva faction and would later play a leading role in the internal power struggle within that group that broke out after his boss, Arturo Beltran Leyva, was killed by Mexican marines in December 2009.
Valdez was arrested in 2010 in central Mexico. He spent five years in Mexican custody — at the same prison where Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán was held for 17 months until his tunnel escape last July — until Mexico's government abruptly sent him to the United States along with 12 others to face drug charges.
"La Barbie" was believed to be the highest ranking American-born drug lord in a Mexican cartel's leadership structure until his arrest.
The Department of Justice released a statement after the hearing that quoted US Attorney John Horn describing La Barbie's guilty plea as a "victory" for both the United States and Mexico.
"Valdez stands as a prime example of the Mexican cartels' influence over the U.S. drug trade, as truckload after truckload of his cocaine traveled across the border to Atlanta for further transport to cities throughout the eastern United States," Horn was cited as saying. "We are grateful for the cooperation of the Mexican government in securing Valdez's arrest and extradition to Atlanta to face these charges."
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