After saying he would plead guilty and then reversing himself earlier this year out of fear for his family members in Mexico, a reputed lieutenant of captured drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman finally pleaded guilty in Chicago on Tuesday to taking part in a $1 billion trafficking conspiracy.
Alfredo Vasquez Hernandez, suspected of being a logistics chief for the Sinaloa cartel, had been scheduled to stand trial May 12, and prosecutors indicated they would present firsthand witness accounts of the powerful cartel's inner workings.
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Hernandez, 58, seemed poised to plead guilty in early March. But his attorneys said at the time that he'd had a change of heart after a Chicago television station wrongly reported he had turned on his old boss, Guzman.
Hernandez's lawyers never said directly that he was worried his family could be injured or killed based on the TV report, but it is widely understood that defendants accused of cartel-related crimes sometimes fear retaliation against their relatives.
As Hernandez stood in court Tuesday in orange jail clothes with a Spanish-language interpreter by his side, Chief U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo repeatedly went out of his way to say Hernandez had not cut any deal with prosecutors.
"Mr. Vasquez Hernandez ... has offered no cooperation and plans no cooperation in the future," he said.
After the hearing, defense attorney Paul Brayman said enough time had passed since what he described as the erroneous TV report to ease his client's concerns.
"It took a little time to let all that settle," Brayman said.
Hernandez pleaded guilty to one count of possessing cocaine and heroin with intent to distribute. He faces a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 10 years and a maximum of life. Sentencing is set for Nov. 6.
A trial was expected to highlight Hernandez's talent as a logistician.
Prosecutors alleged he would send 747-cargo planes full of clothes on supposed humanitarian missions to South America and that they would return to Mexico with up to 13 tons of cocaine.
Trains were also a specialty, they said.
Hernandez would sometime arrange multi-ton shipments of cocaine by train from Guadalajara, Mexico, to Chicago; the illicit cargo would be listed as furniture, government filings say.
The government's star witnesses were to be twin brothers Pedro and Margarito Flores, who are alleged to have operated a Chicago-based trafficking network with close ties to Sinaloa.
Hernandez is the second cartel lieutenant named in a sweeping Chicago trafficking indictment to plead guilty. The other, Vicente Zambada, secretly pleaded guilty last year, prosecutors recently revealed.
Among those accused in the same indictment is Guzman, who was captured in Mexico in February.
Government filings not only portray Hernandez as a Guzman deputy, but they also claim the two were longtime friends. But speaking to reporters Tuesday, another defense attorney, Arturo M. Hernandez, denied that.
"Our client has always maintained that he does not know El Chapo," he said.