CHICAGO — A U.S. judge sentenced a reputed lieutenant of captured Mexican drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman to 22 years in prison Monday for his role in a $1 billion trafficking conspiracy, saying the stiff sentence should send a message to traffickers everywhere.
Alfredo Vasquez-Hernandez, 59, stood unmoving in a Chicago courtroom, listening through a Spanish-speaking interpreter as Chief U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo's tone became more stern.
"I tell you on behalf of all citizens of Chicago ... we are tired of this drug trafficking," he said.
The case is regarded as one of the U.S. government's most important against Mexican cartels. Guzman remains jailed in Mexico and Mexican authorities haven't said if they might extradite him to Chicago.
Minutes before the sentence was imposed, a deferential Hernandez said he wanted to apologize.
"I ask you for forgiveness and for you to have pity on me," he told the judge.
Defense attorney Paul Brayman had asked that Castillo impose no more than the mandatory minimum 10-year sentence, saying "anything more ... is a death sentence" for his client. Hernandez pleaded guilty this year to possessing heroin and cocaine with intent to distribute.
After the hearing, Hernandez's 43-year-old son, Gabriel Vasquez, told reporters the punishment was too harsh.
"He's not the monster that everyone says he is," an emotional Vasquez said. "He's a family man."
Early at Monday's hearing, Castillo repeatedly asked the question: "Who is this defendant?"
Prosecutors relied on two Sinaloa cartel associates-turned-government witnesses, Pedro and Margarito Flores, to paint Hernandez as a close friend of Guzman who used his logistical skills to ship tons of drugs by train from Mexico to Chicago concealed amid furniture cargo.
But the defense described him as an auto repairman who got caught up in a one-off drug deal. They also attacked the credibility of the Flores twins, saying they exaggerated Hernandez's role in the cartel to curry favor with prosecutors.
In the end, Castillo said there were legitimate questions about the believability of the twins. And he said he would not factor in whether Hernandez was or wasn't a ranking cartel figure, saying it would be unfair "to let the entire specter of 'El Chapo' Guzman" influence the sentence.
But Castillo also said he didn't accept the portrayal of Hernandez as someone who stumbled into the one deal for which he was extradited in 2012 from Mexico to Chicago.
"I'm not going to sit here ... and think for one second this was the first time you happened to do this," he said.
Secret recordings and other evidence provided by the twin brothers in 2008 led to the Chicago indictments of Hernandez and 10 others, including Guzman and the Flores twins themselves.
Hernandez was the first up for sentencing.
Prosecutors say the Flores brothers cut deals with Guzman, Hernandez and others to distribute drugs in several cities, including Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Washington.
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