Everybody knows Mexican drug lords are filthy rich, but the recent sentencing of a leader of the notorious Beltrán-Leyva cartel suggests the illicit business is even more lucrative than imagined — and the U.S. government wants a piece of the action.
Alfredo “El Mochomo” Beltrán-Leyva, the youngest of five brothers behind the Beltrán-Leyva Organization (BLO), was sentenced to life in prison on Wednesday in federal court in Washington, D.C. Prosecutors claim the 48-year-old Beltrán-Leyva, a former ally of Sinaloa cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, was “responsible for moving hundreds of thousands of kilograms of drugs” across the border from his homebase in Culiacán, Mexico.
Not content with just putting Beltrán-Leyva behind bars for the rest of his days, federal authorities are also trying to recoup some of the money he made from his drug empire, a common part of the penalty in such cases. Prosecutors initially asked Judge Richard J. León to force Beltrán-Leyva to repay $10 billion in asset forfeiture, a figure they said was a “a conservative estimate” of his earnings over the years. On Wednesday, Judge León ordered Beltrán-Leyva to fork over a slightly smaller but hardly insignificant sum: $529,200,000. (See pdf below.)
El Mochomo, whose nickname means “the desert ant,” has already appealed his sentence, and his attorneys claim the $10 billion figure was “pulled from thin air and bears no relation to reality.” Prosecutors in the case have conceded that the “calculation of forfeiture amounts is not an exact science” but also said they don’t need to be precise “because criminals, especially drug traffickers, rarely keep detailed receipts of their ill-gotten gains.”
The feds have said the asset forfeiture figures in the case were “based upon extensive debriefs of cooperating members” of the BLO cartel, “including high-ranking members of the organization with detailed, firsthand knowledge” of the group’s “financial dealings.”
The Department of Justice averages about $2 billion per year in deposits and expenses to its Assets Forfeiture Fund, but it relies on major cases to generate the majority of that cash. Five big cases produced half of all forfeiture revenue during the past five years, including more than $4 billion from the Bernie Madoff fraud investigation.
Prosecutors say the BLO cartel “was responsible for the shipment of multi-ton quantities of cocaine from South America, through Central America and Mexico, and eventually into the United States.” El Mochomo pleaded guilty to cocaine and meth conspiracy charges. He admitted to being in charge of “multiple methamphetamine laboratories” and coordinating cocaine shipments through Culiacán, the provincial capital of Sinaloa.
The BLO was once closely linked to the Sinaloa cartel, but Alfredo Beltrán-Leyva’s arrest in 2008 triggered a bloody war between the two organizations. It’s widely believed that El Chapo betrayed the youngest Beltrán-Leyva brother to secure the release of his son Archivaldo, who was freed by Mexican authorities 90 days after Alfredo’s capture.
Alfredo’s older brothers Arturo and Hector, the ringleaders of the cartel, retaliated with an all-out assault against Chapo, their childhood friend and a relative by marriage. All of the Beltrán-Leyva brothers have since been killed or captured, but the family feud is still raging in Sinaloa. Alfredo’s son, “El Mochomito,” who is also El Chapo’s nephew, has reportedly “entered into an anti-Chapo alliance with the Jalisco Cartel,” and is attacking Sinaloa cartel strongholds in the Sierra Nevada mountains, including Chapo’s hometown.
Chapo himself is now in U.S. custody and awaiting trial in a Brooklyn federal court. Federal prosecutors are seeking an even larger chunk of change from him than the amount they sought from Alfredo Beltrán-Leyva — a whopping $14 billion worth of asset forfeiture. But with both drug lords locked up and their respective cartels in disarray, it’s highly unlikely they’ll ever pay up.