A high-ranking lieutenant in the Sinaloa cartel was sentenced on Tuesday Aug. 6, in a federal court in Chicago to 28 years in prison for helping the sons of convicted boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman traffic thousands of pounds of narcotics into the U.S.
Jesus Beltran Leon, also known as “El Trebol,” which translates to “The Clover,” pleaded guilty in April to drug trafficking charges brought in an indictment against the notorious Mexican cartel that has been described as the most significant drug case in Chicago’s history.
Leon’s attorneys had argued for the minimum possible sentence of 10 years in prison, saying prosecutors vastly overstated his role in the cartel and ignored compelling evidence that Leon was brutally tortured by Mexican marines after his arrest in 2014 — abuse allegedly witnessed by U.S. drug agents.
In listening to the defense arguments Tuesday, however, U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo became incensed at the insistence that U.S. authorities knew about the torture and sought to cover it up.
“You’re needlessly expending your credibility with this court and for what?” Castillo shouted at attorney Stephen Ralls, of Arizona, who was part of Leon’s defense team. “You suspect that the DEA is in the middle of it. You don’t have proof! … Suspicion doesn’t win here. That’s not the country I belong to.”
When Ralls tried to argue that Leon’s affidavit swearing that DEA agents were present in his home for some of the alleged torture was proof enough, Castillo cut him off.
“Will he take the witness stand and repeat that declaration and see how that goes for him?” Castillo asked.
“No,” Ralls eventually replied.
Castillo also said that while he would never condone torture, atrocities in Mexico occur on both sides of the drug trafficking equation.
“Let’s be realistic about what is going on in Mexico,” Castillo said. “People are dying, day in and day out, and that includes a significant amount of Mexican law enforcement personnel.”
Still, the judge made clear in his remarks that he was “adjusting” Leon’s sentence to reflect that he was potentially abused at the hands of Mexican authorities.
“We cannot have a situation where the end justifies the means,” he said.
Before Castillo announced his sentence, Leon, who lost his dual U.S. citizenship as a result of his conviction, stood in court dressed in an orange jail jumpsuit and apologized for his role in bringing drugs into the country.
“When caught in this drug life, all I thought about was making money,” Leon said in clear English. “Sadly, in my case, the American dream I lived was an illegal one. … This life has caused nothing but sadness and devastation. I built it on lies and false hope.”
In asking for a prison sentence of at least 35 years, prosecutors presented evidence that Leon tried to hire gang members inside the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a federal jail in the Loop, to severely beat a cartel associate who was cooperating against him.
Fellow inmate Andrew Johnston, a three-time convicted bank robber, testified during the two-day hearing about secret recordings he made of Leon in May talking about the alleged $25,000 offer to carry out the beating of Damaso Lopez Serrano, El Chapo’s godson.
In issuing his ruling, however, Castillo said the recordings fell short of proving Leon was behind the offer. The judge also blasted the credibility of Johnston, who has previously accused the FBI of fabricating evidence in his case and the U.S. attorney’s office and even the judge overseeing his case of being in on a plot to falsely convict him.
“It’s a very close call,” Castillo said of the allegations of the beating-for-hire. “But (Johnston’s) credibility is just about nowhere in this building.”
Leon’s sentencing hearing also featured the testimony of Serrano, who was considered the highest-ranking cartel member ever to surrender to U.S. authorities when he walked across the border in 2017 and began cooperating.
In his first public testimony, Serrano said he had personally ordered at least 15 killings and more than 20 kidnappings of rival narcos in his time with the cartel. For years, Serrano’s father acted as Guzman’s right-hand man, he said. Leon, meanwhile, worked mostly in drug trafficking networks run by Guzman’s sons, known in Mexico as “Los Chapitos.”
In 2001, Leon was with one of the sons when they went to pick up Guzman after his spectacular escape from prison, according to Serrano, who testified that Leon told him the story personally.
According to Serrano, Leon was known to be brash and undisciplined in his work, brandishing a gold-plated AK-47 at parties, snorting cocaine and drinking heavily.
The indictment against Leon, which also names El Chapo and several of his top henchmen, alleged that the cartel used jumbo jets, submarines and tunnels to smuggle massive amounts of drugs into the U.S., much of which was later distributed in wholesale quantities in Chicago.
The cartel members then laundered billions of dollars in proceeds back to Mexico, according to the charges.
Guzman was convicted in New York earlier this year of murder conspiracy and drug trafficking charges and sentenced in July to life in prison.