A reputed lieutenant of recently captured drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman indicated in a Chicago courtroom Wednesday that he will change his plea to guilty in a $1 billion trafficking conspiracy that prosecutors say was masterminded by his infamous boss.
The decision by Alfredo Vasquez Hernandez, who stood in the courtroom with his legs shackled and listening to an interpreter though a headset, comes days after Guzman was arrested in Mexico following a more than decadelong manhunt.
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But Guzman's capture did not influence Hernandez's change of heart, defense attorney Paul Brayman told reporters outside court. Neither attorneys nor Chief U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo mentioned Guzman during the 10-minute hearing.
U.S. prosecutors in Chicago indicted Guzman, Hernandez and eight others in 2009, accusing them of using speed boats, submarines and even a cargo plane to move drugs from South America to Mexico, then to the U.S.
Hernandez, who was extradited from Mexico to Chicago in 2012, was one of the Sinaloa cartel's logistics chiefs, sometimes helping to arrange shipments of cocaine and other drugs from Mexico to Chicago, according to court documents filed by the government.
Castillo scheduled a March 7 hearing for Hernandez to change his plea to guilty. His plea is not a part of any deal with the government, so prosecutors made him no promises in advance.
U.S. authorities have said Guzman made Chicago a primary distribution hub for his Sinaloa cartel, relying on the city's extensive train, airport and highway systems to transport narcotics to points in the Midwest and farther around the U.S.
Among the others accused in the trafficking conspiracy is a still-at-large leader of the Sinaloa cartel, Ismael Zambada, and his son, admitted Sinaloa lieutenant Vicente Zambada.
The son, Vicente, was arrested in Mexico City in 2009 and extradited to Chicago in 2010 under the same indictment. He is waiting for his trial to begin.
Among the allegations levied by prosecutors in Chicago was that Guzman and several of his cohorts discussed staging attacks on U.S. or Mexican facilities in Mexico to express outrage at the extradition of cartel members to the United States.
Chicago is among seven U.S. cities where Guzman has been indicted, and federal officials in the city had said -- long before Guzman's capture -- that they wanted him to face trial in Chicago one day.
Mexican officials, however, formally charged Guzman after his capture, signaling they want first crack at prosecuting him.